To Live and (Almost Die) in L.A.: I Beat Cancer During the Pandemic then Fled the City

In recognition of Cancer Survivors Day, veteran entertainment reporter Marisa Sullivan shares her breast cancer journey
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I moved out of Los Angeles in 2020 at the height of the pandemic after 20 years of epic dream-building, and after one week of beating cancer. It’s like being in love with an addict who you had no choice to leave. For me, living those dreams, at times, quickly turned to nightmares—but I’m resilient, and always land on my feet. Always have.

Like thousands who came before me, I came to the city in 2001 with the intention of following every glamorous dream that the little Midwestern girl in me desired. I had $100 in my pocket, and I was ready to take on the world. The palm tree-lined partial utopia devilishly delivered after many years of hard work, but my health eventually did not reciprocate. In other words, the city didn’t necessarily turn on me, but my lifestyle certainly did.

When a person survives cancer, sometimes they change their entire surroundings. Everything—and everyone—is guilty by association. Even your beloved hometown. Hey, I’m not the one who wrote the rules on the psychology behind it, but that’s what many cancer patients tend to do. I’m not saying I did that per se, but cancer coupled with COVID … it was time for a complete overhaul in all areas.

Cancer will always be a part of me. For better or worse.

I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer on my 40th birthday fresh off a multiple-day bender at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, and in typical L.A. fashion, still hit up an intimate Madonna show that night at the legendary Wiltern. You know, a standard Tuesday, and in L.A., that’s not even being sarcastic.

 

On the surface (a.k.a. social media) I had it all—dream city, dream job in media and entertainment, dream high-rise pad downtown, dream marriage (ish).

Now picture Amber Heard and Johnny Depp on even more acid (not literally, just creating an even more demented visual), AND while battling cancer. That was pretty much what my life was like. Not to mention this was while embarking on five months of chemotherapy. Awesome, right?

I went through a painful separation during that time and moved out to a studio loft apartment during my third week of treatment, right before Christmas. It’s safe to say when you’re alone on Christmas in a red leather skirt and smeared make-up, high on chemo drugs and eating frozen pizza, it’s time to do something different.

Comedy and my dark sense of humor got me through my heath battle, and this far in life, and I know it will continue to propel me forward.

To be fair, it wasn’t all bad all the time, and I take responsibility for my part. Ironically, I moved next to the historic Eastern Columbia building on Broadway, a.k.a “the penthouses” where Depp and Heard lived for anyone who followed the trial closely.

Marisa’s first day of chemotherapy treatment in December, 2019.

The beautifully turquoise, art-deco work of art was my direct view from my big bay window and is one of my favorite buildings in the city. This was my second time living in this building, which I nicknamed the chemo-tel, as its job was to strictly house me and nurse me back to health. I needed a sanctuary, by myself, to beat the fuck out of this disease. And I did.

However, when you go through a cancer battle during a pandemic, not to mention a divorce, things can get a bit muddled. Anything for a good story, they say (I say), but this was a bit extreme, even for me. I decided, for my health, that I needed to GTFO of L.A. and go to Florida to be with my mom and close to my family. Things were looking grim, and so yes, I admit it, I am one of the statistical L.A. refugees, but I had a damn good excuse. Plus, I couldn’t deal with another fire season until I got healthier.

Alas, it was easier to throw in the towel. It just made the most sense. After months of treatment and coming so close to losing my life, there was no way in hell I was going to lock down. Sorry.

Rain or shine or pandemic, I was going to LIVE. So I did.

Marisa before her surgery in 2020.

Cut to my joyriding ass hightailing it across the country, and I only got pulled over twice.

I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, went to Graceland, did some off-roading in New Mexico pretending I was on a Breaking Bad drug deal … it was the most freeing feeling on Earth. I didn’t care what was next. I only cared that I was alive and living in the moment. While everyone else was cooped up at home, scared to leave, I was on a national tour.

OK fine, yes, I went to be with the maskless wonders in Sarasota and then St. Petersburg, Florida, where I got a cute little apartment for a year. I spent some much-needed time with my mom and the revolving door of relatives coming in from Chicago for an escape as I completed my radiation. I did have another cancer scare, but thankfully it wound up being nothing.

Marisa at the Grand Canyon in 2020 during her cross-country cancer-free journey

After months of beaches, bike rides and breweries, I was able to heal from the toxicity I voluntarily and involuntarily put into my body. I even fell in love again—with a Brit!

When the world started opening, the city was calling once again—but this time I decided to stay on the east coast. Incredibly, I’m now living in New York City with my wonderful boyfriend, building a fresh life, but still zipping back to my beloved City of Angels for work.

I’ve always dreamt of casually saying “I’m bi-coastal” (and then listen to some tool, basically me, crack a sexual innuendo), and now I’m living even more of my dream I suppose because I get the best of both worlds.

Outward sigh.

It’s been a long, winding, treacherous and fascinating road, but thankfully, it’s looking like I’m meant to stay here on this earth for a bit longer. I’ve had multiple setbacks—both physically and emotionally, not to mention financially—since hearing those beautiful words “cancer-free” from my fabulous surgeon at Cedars-Sinai two years ago.

Marisa at the Hearst Estate on a recent trip back to L.A.

But cancer will always be a part of me. For better or for worse.

Just three months ago, I was in the ER for some mystery symptoms. I’m not sure if it was from cancer treatment, COVID, or from radiation due to the countless scans I’ve had. It also could be mental because I’ve been pushed to the furthest point of spontaneous combustion that I have ever thought possible. But after an extremely hard start to the year, I am proud to say that I am back on my feet and have manifested so many new, wonderful opportunities. I will never give up.

Just last week, I moderated a panel talking women’s health topics for Women Who Rock put on by Gibson (that little guitar brand). I’m back on the red carpet for one of the biggest outlets out there, but this time with purpose—as I’ve been making a name for myself in the health and wellness space and delving deeper into mental health, sexual health, and female empowerment subject matter.

It was a blessing to write remotely full-time as I healed.

I have over 500 published articles on SurvivorNet.com that I’ve written for the cancer community. I helped launch a series called Bare by Giddy that I hosted on Giddy’s sexual health site, having important discussions with celebrity guests on sexual and mental health.

I mentor women who have recently been diagnosed with cancer through Imerman Angels, as well as collaborated with huge organizations like F Cancer. I will be talking sexual health topics this week with Rise Medical on their IG Live.

Marisa covering Variety’s Power of Women event in New York last month.

Additionally, this breast cancer bandit (or Cancy Drew, as I’ve nicknamed myself) will be teaming up with an entertainment PR powerhouse and fellow breast cancer survivor to launch a new podcast.

Comedy and my dark sense of humor got me through my heath battle, and this far in life, and I know it will continue to propel me forward.

The main message that I’m wanting to get across is that we’ve all had it rough, but you can overcome. Yes, I’ve gone through cancer, but we have all been through some of the worst moments in recent history, and to those of you out there suffering, it can get better. I lost everything, then like a country song played backward, got everything back and then some. I much prefer this life compared to a more superficial one.

Sure, late nights walking down Holloway Drive from the Sunset Marquis or jumping off the roof into a pool at a rockstar’s house in the Hollywood Hills when I’m supposed to be at the office is fun and all, but I’m in semi-retirement.

I have always strived to keep evolving, but the only thing that truly helped bring me on my correct path, ironically, was cancer. We are all continually evolving, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes life’s hurdles don’t make sense, but in the end, they may get you on your true path. For once, I can truly breathe.

Will I be back as an official L.A. resident one day? Probably. But for now, I’m staying with dear friends in their guest house and penthouse when “back home” commuting from The Big Apple. Not too shabby.

Hollywood, I will never leave you for good—I just needed a reset. And this 2.0 version of myself will be back very soon to continue making waves in the sinfully delicious city where I came of age. On the soon-to-be Viper Room-less Sunset Strip, or wherever else I choose to roam.

Marisa moderating the Women Who Rock panel presented by Gibson at the Gibson showroom in Hollywood. (Photo credit: Kelli Daer)

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