Valisia LeKae received a life-changing phone call from her gynecologist on December 2, 2013. Picking up the phone, she assumed he was ringing her to check on how she was recovering post surgery — after all, she had a 6-centimeter cyst removed from her abdomen only 10 days prior — but he wasn’t. “He told me that the cyst had come back positive for ovarian cancer,” she says. Shocked and in disbelief, she asked him if he was sure.
LeKae was born in 1979 to a family of “creative people” in Memphis, Tennessee. She had always dreamed of becoming a star, but in the days preceding American Idol it was a rather difficult goal to accomplish. “There was ‘Star Search’ with Ed McMahon, and maybe once every few years he would come through our town,” recalls LeKae. “I wanted to be the next Aretha or Whitney Houston. And so I needed to get to New York to do that.”
Growing up, the young starlet in the making took every possible opportunity to be in the spotlight. When she couldn’t sing in church or participate in school plays, she would rally the student body at various events as the school mascot or drive to nearby theme parks to perform in various shows. From Libertyland to Dollywood, LeKae delighted the crowds with her performances, often up to five times a day.
Although singing was her passion, she still worked toward earning a degree in child psychology, with a minor in family studies at the University of Tennessee. Never losing sight of her objective, she applied as a performer with the USO Show Troupe of Metropolitan New York during her senior year of college. Even though her application was late, she was invited to audition in the Big Apple and was later accepted. “Up till today, it was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she states.
From there, LeKae was able to land a number of nonunion gigs, as well as a few professional readings. During one of these, she met Richard Maltby Jr., a well-known writer, composer, and producer, which led to her being cast in “The 60s Project,” which he directed. Afterward, LeKae had no problem getting into the union and booking subsequent gigs. She was the swing understudy for “The Book of Mormon” and “The Three Penny Opera” and participated in variety of other shows.
In January 2011, LeKae learned that there were going to be auditions for the role of Diana Ross in an upcoming musical called “Motown” — so she started preparing for the role. “I had my auditions and booked the job for the reading of the show, which lasts two weeks,” she explains. “There were no sets, no costumes.” Because LeKae had been collecting vintage clothes and garments for most of her life, she decided to come dressed as a “different-era Diana Ross” for every day she was on set.
It’s actually striking how many similarities there are between LeKae and the legendary singer. When she talks, she unconsciously mimics Ross’ mannerisms, from subtle hand gestures to flirty half-smiles. “Here was this thin, young African American girl, and all she wanted to do was sing,” Lekae states. “There are certain things that we can do through life that feel like the perfect fit, and, for me, that was her character.”
The show premiered on April 14, 2013, and quickly became a massive Broadway hit that generated widespread critical acclaim. For her portrayal of Ross in Motown, Lekae has been nominated for a Grammy in 2014 and a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2013, as well as a number of other honors. Life, it seemed, was finally coming together for the ambitious actress, but bad news was already looming on the horizon.
In fall 2013, LeKae went for her regular gynecological checkup. “I’ve had this very small cyst for a few years now,” she reveals, “but there was no cause for concern.” When she came back to get her results, the doctor informed her that over the last year the cyst had tripled in size and now posed a serious health risk. “If you speak to anyone who’s had a cyst rupture, they talk about how painful it is. It’s like dying, or they think they’ve had an ectopic pregnancy,” she elaborates. “Now, I had shown earlier signs of endometriosis, but the doctors don’t usually confirm the diagnosis until you have surgery.”
The surgery to remove the cyst was scheduled. “I had sort of a gruesome recovery period,” she recalls. Annoyed at the discomfort and complaining about the procedure’s inconvenience, she spent 10 days moping around in her lounge chair. Until, that is, she got the call. “It was a very unexpected event that happened in my life,” she states. “I had no family history of ovarian cancer — or breast cancer, for that matter.” And then there was the fact that LeKae had always led a healthful and active lifestyle.
“My CAT scan was negative. Actually, nothing showed up,” explains LeKae. “But once [the doctor] saw the slide, it confirmed that I did in fact have ovarian cancer.” The doctor suggested that LeKae see a gynecological oncologist. Uncomfortable with the person he recommended, she decided to go to Dr. David Fishman at the Mount Sinai Hospital instead. About a month after her appointment, LeKae had surgery to remove her right ovary and right fallopian tube. “I started chemo on December 30,” she says.
What is truly striking about LeKae is her positive and grateful attitude. “What I found — unexpectedly — after being diagnosed with cancer is that it’s been my greatest joy,” she states bluntly. “Experiencing this, which could have been the absolutely last thing to happen to date, put me in a position where I can now walk through life with grace, mercy, and joy. I will be able to stand up to anything.” On the road to recovery, LeKae also learned a lot about other people. “You’re able to see them through a different set of lenses. Outside of the ‘Lights, camera, action,’ they just want to be right there with you.”
Valisia LeKae became a spokesperson of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition in February 2014. “When I found out that I had ovarian cancer, I knew nothing about it,” she explains, “and I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me with my cancer.” Driven to spread the information, she embraces her status as one of the organization’s spokespeople. “I wasn’t about to let any young girl — or African American woman, for that matter — go through that again, because no one is talking to women under 40 about ovarian cancer,” says the proud cancer warrior.
Since the time of this interview, LeKae has successfully completed treatment and is now cancer-free.
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.