Helping Cancer Research through The Farrah Fawcett Foundation and Sharing a Personal Journey as Mother to an Autistic Child

LLL ROMEO | Funding Cancer Research

LLL ROMEO | Funding Cancer Research

 

Cancer treatment has been a struggle for many people and families that have loved ones suffering from this disease. That is why it is vital that we have organizations that further fund research about it as well as clinics that help those diagnosed with it. In this episode, Christine Romeo, director of communications for The Farrah Fawcett Foundation, visits the show to share her work of helping fund research for HPV and anal cancer. She also lets us in on her life as a mother of an autistic child.

Listen to the podcast here:

Helping Cancer Research through The Farrah Fawcett Foundation and Sharing a Personal Journey as Mother to an Autistic Child

We have another fantastic episode. Who is our special guest star? Who have you brought along to the La La Landed house?

Much of LA is all about the fast-paced road to success, but there are people in this city who want to help and help those who need it. As Director of Communications with The Farrah Fawcett Foundation, this lady sure knows how to give back and how to spread awareness for things that matter and things that save lives. Please welcome to the show, the truly wonderful Christine Romeo. Christine, how are you?

I’m fantastic. Thanks for having me.

You’ve got a movie star’s name. Let’s start with that. Is Romeo your real last name?

It is.

How fabulous.

Not so much when I was a child.

Was it shortened from something or is it always been Romeo?

It is Romeo from Southern Italy.

People are expressing a lot of love out of you with that name.

You must have had that thrown at you all the time, right?

Yes. As a kid, it wasn’t fun. Romeo and Juliet, that whole thing.

My last name is Behr. You could imagine all the puns that I’ve had with that.

Take us back to the beginning. How did it all start for you apart from your name?

Let’s start with where are you from originally? You mentioned Italy, but I’m assuming you are born American. Where’s the family from and where are you from?

I’m from Boston, Massachusetts, the home of Tom Brady.

I like the Patriots. There’s nothing wrong with Tom Brady.

He’s from Northern California not Boston, I should clarify. I came out here in the early ‘90s. My ex-husband was an actor. When I was in school, I spent a year in England as an exchange student at the University of Warwick in Coventry.

Do not let your child with autism stay in their fear or phobia. Click To Tweet

Did you enjoy that?

Yeah, that was fantastic. It’s funny because Coventry was badly bombed out during the war. The school I went to, I envisioned brick and ivy, rolling hills and cows in the distance. I got there and it was solid concrete.

Coventry is a bit concrete city.

It’s a little bit of a shock when I saw that, but I have lovely and fantastic friends. It was a great year and I wish more American students got to go overseas and do 1 or 2 semesters. It’s valuable for us. I came out here because I was in the entertainment business. My ex-husband is an actor. I was in the business as well. He got into YouTube.

What were you doing?

I was doing a lot of writing comedy and I was doing sketch comedy. I had produced that comedy stuff. I had a writing partner and I was doing Guest Star’s Coaster. I was on television, the little ones like Woman Number One role.

Did you ever get named if we look for you online?

What I did that’s odd and funny is that I had an important role as a co-star in the final episode of Star Trek Enterprise where the woman scientist comes running in, delivers a test tubes and tells all the aliens that there’s a half-alien, half-human baby, but then I get shot and die.

That was your moment, your fifteen-minutes of fame. How was it being in the industry? Our show is La La Landed so we talk to a lot of people in front and behind the camera. Everybody knows the glitz and glamour, the red carpet and all of the fabulous stuff. Working in the industry is a different thing. It’s inconsistent and precarious and all the things we all know and love about it. When you’re with somebody who’s also in the industry, is it scary? Is it more fun? How is it being with somebody that’s also in the industry with you?

When I was married to my ex-husband, I wanted him to be successful and I did everything I could to help him get there. I was young and my dream was that one day, I would own a house or have a normal life. I didn’t think I would because I have chosen this crazy business that you don’t know what’s going to happen. I worked hard. I coached him on auditions before he got his television series and I was part of that. He got a television series and he’s getting all the focus and I’m getting none. It’s a weird place to be when you have a creative voice, but you want to respect the other person’s status. We’d walk red carpets together and our rule was, “Zip it, Christine, unless a reporter asks you specifically a question.”

Was that hard for you?

It was hard for me at first because I have a lot of energy, ideas and insights. I want to share them, not out of attention but more like, “I have an idea. Let’s see if that works,” or perspective. I’m trying to respect him and I couldn’t do that.

Does that build resentment, do you think?

I could definitely see how it could build resentment. I’ll tell you why. I was 35 years old, grateful that one of us had substantial income or grown up in calm, I call it. I didn’t care at the end. It was an initial impetus like, “I could not be me,” or, “I’m funny too.” There was that, but then I realized to be in gratitude for the fact that one of us is working.

You had a couple of children, then what happened next?

He was on his show and the show went off the air. I tried to be a second pair of eyes for him to make smart creative choices. Just because you’re on a series, it doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever. You have to look at, “Am I getting offers in the summer? Am I doing other shows? Did I get a movie of the week?” You’re trying to build. That did not happen for him. Ultimately, we were not a good team. We had two children. My insights or career business stuff, which I’ve always had a real business head about this, was not welcomed by my ex-husband. We divorced and at the same time, when we were in divorce mode, our first child was diagnosed with autism. That was a big left turn in the path of life or the path I thought I was supposed to be on.

To wrap up the ex-husband area, would you recommend people being with actors? I have a lot of amazing actor friends, but they even tell me, “Don’t date an actor.” That is what I have avoided.

It depends on the actor and it depends on where they’re coming from because a close friend of mine is an actor named Thomas Calabro. He was on Melrose Place for ten years as Dr. Michael Mancini and he became a good solid friend through the business. I introduced him to one of my best friends and they are now married.

LLL ROMEO | Funding Cancer Research
Funding Cancer Research: The problem with HPV is it can go away, but 50 years down the road, you suddenly get diagnosed with anal, cervical, or throat cancer.

 

It can work out then.

She is not in the business. She’s an advertising person and runs her own company, but Thomas is a hands-on guy. He’s not afraid to go shovel the dog poop and he’s level-headed. He’s from New York and a real family man. His feet are on the ground even though he’s an actor. He still acts for different projects and he does other things as well. He’s a good guy. It depends on the individual.

I would struggle with more of a movie actor because they go away a lot. When somebody’s going abroad or on location for 4 to 6 months on a shoot, they’re doing all these love scenes with their co-stars and there’s a natural chemistry that derives from that. Hence, all these onset affairs everybody has. I can’t cope with that. I know they say we’re acting, but you’re still getting on down and dirty with somebody that you probably and maybe have a connection or chemistry with. I’m too jealous. Did you ever have to experience that? I would find that tough.

Yes, a couple of times. One of the actresses that he did a movie with for a week, she was precious. She came up to me and talked to me before the shoot and said, “We have this scene together. You’re welcome to stay and watch if you want. If you don’t, let me know.” She was checking with you like, “We got to do this thing,” and because I was an actor, I had scenes where I had to kiss guys or make out with guys or do whatever. I know how unpleasant it can be. It can look visually sexy, but it’s all like, “Move your head one inch to the right. You’re off the frame.” You’re kissing somebody and you’re like, “I have to do it like this. I got to turn this way.” It’s not as spontaneous as it might seem. If you’ve done it, it helps you understand that maybe it’s not quite as glamorous as it seems or hot and sexy because you’ve got a crew, hot lights and nobody smells good at that point.

You mentioned your daughter, the lovely Abi, that she is autistic. When you discovered Abi was autistic, that must’ve come with quite a lot of shock and upset for you. How have you dealt with this over the years as she’s developed into a young woman?

It’s been a roller coaster ride. She was diagnosed and I noticed things different about her when she was about fifteen months old. I started comparing her to other kids on the playground and whenever I’m noticing she wasn’t doing what they were doing. I brought her to the doctor despite my pediatrician saying I was overreacting. She got a diagnosis when she was about 2.5 years old.

As a mother, you innately know something is not quite right.

I knew something was wrong. I could tell, but it’s harder when it’s your first. I’m not a kid person. I’m not like, “I have to have kids.” I was waiting until the last second before my eggs froze up. I was like, “I got to do this.” It’s been a roller coaster because when they give you the diagnosis, the doctor said to me this massive amount of therapies that I was going to have to do to try and help my kid. These cognitive-behavioral therapies, floor time and all these massive amounts of almost scientific concepts. Here I am, my ex-husband and I are getting a divorce. I also have a son. He’s just been born, so I’ve got two kids. There’s no money in sight and that’s going to dry up. It was not a good time and then to hear that I was going to have to do all this intervention was overwhelming. It was a grueling first five years of her life.

Having a kid, generally, is grueling the first five years.

What kind of support were you able to get at that time?

My family is from Boston. They’re not here, so I had some girlfriends that would help and other mothers sometimes would help, but I didn’t work at that time. We were still living on serious money, so I was able to commit full-time to being her caregiver and driving her to therapy. She had such massive anxiety. We could be in speech therapy and I couldn’t be on the other side of the door. She would have a tantrum. I’d have to be in the therapy room with her and she would have to be sitting on my lap in order for her to participate in her speech therapy at four years old.

It’s draining, exhausting and mentally challenging. You feel like you’ve lost yourself. I’m assuming that because that’s motherhood anyway. With this on top of it, you must have felt that.

That’s a great way of putting it. I lost myself. I’ve never said it like that, but I’d say that’s a great way of saying it because I give my all. I was a picture of myself. I can deal with inner-city kids, drug-addicted kids, girls that need a mentor, someone that’s fallen on hard times and a high school student who needs support. That’s my forte. A kid that is tantruming and can’t talk or is echolalia in repeating your own language back to you, the level of patience is not my forte.

How did your son, who was younger, as he grew up, how did he deal with having Abi as his autistic sister?

He did not know anything was wrong with her until he was about 6 or 7. He just knew that was his sister. He had an incredible level of patience because he’d come into the therapy rooms, the OT rooms, and there would be kids with an array of disabilities. He’d be sitting there in the waiting room with me at 3 and 4 years old while his sister had therapy. He was around it forever. He didn’t understand autism or what it was until he was about seven. He never came out or asked me, “Does my sister have autism? What’s wrong with my sister?” He’d never, up to this day, said a word. He’s super compassionate. He’s nineteen and he’s a student at Purdue. He’s a patient and kind soul and that’s helped him get there.

Being a new mom is the hardest job in the world, especially like myself. I had never been around babies before. When my first child was born, I was like, “What do I do?” Everybody has their moments that they recalled vividly. I remember the first night she was born and the midwife saying, “I’ll see you guys in the morning.” I’m like, “Where are you going? What do you mean you’re leaving? You can’t leave. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I have this wave of panic of, “What do I do on this day?” Not only is the shock of motherhood overwhelming, the day-to-day learning of it, the neurosis and paranoia that comes out of, “Am I doing it right? Is this the right thing?” You now have the extra challenge on top of that and as a single mom, how do you pull through that? There’s a lot of female readers and we’re all multitaskers. We’re all trying to drag goal, get through the day, pay the bills and put a roof over their heads. I’m a single mom as well, divorced mom. It’s tough and you’ve got no family in town. Christine, how do you get through that? What were your go-to’s?

It challenged me to the core of my existence being on the planet. I like to think of myself as a giver and I work at a charity. I’d like to think of myself as always trying to help others, letting people stay at my house, and all those things. These 7 or 8 years stretch of my life is what I call the proverbial crap hitting the fan. I’m getting a divorce. There’s no money coming down the pipe. I’ve got two kids and I’m in my not early ‘40s. My daughter is diagnosed with autism. This is not good.

The beauty of social media is how it allows us to self-help. Click To Tweet

I kept thinking, “What did I do in a past life? I must’ve done something terrible. I’m sorry universe. Could you toss me a bone?” At some point, I spent six months crying and feeling sorry for myself. I did do that. That was a bad time. I pulled myself out of that and I said, “This is what it is right now. I have two choices. I can be miserable or I can make a commitment to this family and these two kids, and say yes to everything.” That’s what I did. I had a voice saying, “Say yes to everything.”

I went around to the local elementary school where my son was and my daughter was in the special ed there. I had four hours a day from 10:00 to 2:00 and I thought, “I’m going to get a job somewhere.” I asked all the parents and any mothers. I got a job in my friend’s advertising agency doing the most basic minimum wage thing for four hours a day. That was that one step with no ego. I was the woman that walked the red carpets. I was on James Burrows’ private jet, zero. I had to start over again and I was emptying giant yellow page books out of a yellow page library in a warehouse inside the ad agency that my friend owned.

With that unglamorous basic as that was for you, I bet there was an element of, “I’m doing something for me for four hours.”

I said that and I felt productive. I was in charge of it and I brought the sense of humor in comedy that I started out with here into that warehouse with me, and I had a blast. After the initial shock of mentally saying, “I’m 41. I’m emptying a yellow page library. How did I get here?” Instead of doing that voice, I made a choice to laugh at it. I thought it was funny. Within a couple of months, the girls I worked with were hot stuff, fabulous. We had a ball and it was fun. When I started dating and other things coming up, these were my girls.

Honestly, Christine, it’s admirable. Dani, you don’t know Christine. I’ve become friends with Christine through another mutual friend, but she is the most amazing mother to both of her children. Abi is the most delightful young woman and she’s 21, she’s absolutely gorgeous. I hear that she’s got the most beautiful singing voice and I’ve seen her on Instagram singing along. Music and arts have helped Abi with where she is.

What I did was somewhere around Abi was 12 or 13 years old, one job led to another job. I’m making some money enough to barely break even, but at least now, we’ve got some security. She started in The Miracle Project, which was a documentary about a group of young people with autism kids and a woman who did an improvised musical theater play. They won an Emmy in 2008 for this show and they started a program at schools. She started in the arts and she started singing. That group broke off.

She joined a group for singing and videos like sketches and acting it’s called Spectrum Laboratory. She’s been with them for six years and it’s about music, improv, acting and it’s all the arts. I don’t do it because my daughter is going to be an artist and have her own TV show, even though I’d love to be a stage mother because it makes them cognitive and social skills for any individual with autism better. I’ve taken my own background in comedy and stuff, and I’ve produced two of her music videos.

That’s the beauty of social media and being able to self-help yourself these days. We have the launching pads and the platforms nowadays and we never had when we were that that age. It’s there for the taking.

A quick question before we move on to the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, which we really want to talk about but to finish about Abi, her autism and everything that you went through, what advice would you give to young moms who find themselves in the situation that you initially found yourself in with a young baby who is autistic?

The first thing I could say is what you’re experiencing now is not necessarily what you’re going to be experiencing in a year. Sit tight because I’ve overcome, then there’s a new obstacle and you overcome. Abi is doing things that I could never have dreamed she would be able to do that’s the first thing. If you need to go out with the girls and slam down 7 or 8 Chardonnays, do it because I’ve done that. If you need a girl’s weekend and set up a break, do it. You can’t be on it all the time because you’ve got to launch the kid. I’ve made my daughter face her fears within her autism.

Most of my friends didn’t drink anything before children, autistic or not. We’re all bit of posh on a little bit of wine these days or tequila.

Mothers need to remember that when you’ll see one obstacle, push them to overcome that obstacle. Do not let your child with autism stay in their fear or phobia of a thing. I always tell my daughter, “The real world is this. If you have a stuck thought in your memory, because she thinks in pictures. That’s okay. You can’t tell but I hear that because she doesn’t know what that means. I took the deficit and I tried to build on it to help her overcome that skill. In 9 out of 10 cases, she has done that. She has learned. What I want other mothers to know is you don’t build their lives around the autism. You do try to help them in their weakest areas. Build it up.

That’s inspirational. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Give us some Hollywood gossip about the foundation. Who do you love working with you? Who have you worked with?

I know Cheryl Tiegs, the supermodel. Our Iconic Cheryl. I’ve worked with Raquel Welch, George Hamilton, and Lesley Ann Warren. When my ex-husband want a series we’d be at Super Bowl came and Jennifer Aniston, me but she was dating Tate Donovan at the time. I can remember funny stories of getting out of limousines for red carpet events. My ex-husband’s name was Eric, so they’d say, “Eric,” and all the press is buzzing around. All of a sudden, the next limo shows up and it’s Brooke Shields, and they literally run away from you because you’re nothing. There are many funny types of behind the scenes things that people don’t realize, even the hierarchy on a red carpet.

With all of the celebrity connections that you have, that must help with the charity that you’re involved with. It’s run by Alana Stewart, is that right?

Yes.

Did she set it up?

LLL ROMEO | Funding Cancer Research
Funding Cancer Research: The rate of diagnosis for men with throat cancer has already surpassed cervical cancer in women.

 

No. Alana didn’t set it up, Farrah Fawcett set it up. Farrah was diagnosed in 2006 with an HPV-related cancer. That’s the Human Papillomavirus that causes seven types of cancer and it’s common. When she was diagnosed and went into treatment in 2006, she began the paperwork and it was created in 2007. That’s when the paperwork came through. It was a dormant entity because Farrah planned to get better and run it herself. She wanted to do charity.

Did she have cancer that was treatable if cured at the right time?

She had it at late-stage diagnosis. She had anal cancer and that’s not colon cancer and not rectal cancer. Let’s get scientific that there’s a track. We have intestines and then we have colon, rectum and anus. Those are different areas. The tumor sets itself up at that end of the track and it’s often misdiagnosed as hemorrhoid. People ignore it or think it’s nothing. Early diagnosis is the key to saving your life. It is quite treatable, but she got diagnosed late.

A lot of people aren’t educated on HPV. Woman nature, the message of it with people is that women need to have annual smear tests.

It’s more than that. When I started working here, I thought HPV was a newly discovered virus like swine flu, a thing that came along and it’s been around since the ‘70s. It’s been called HPV. It’s connected to cervical cancer and it causes cervical cancer. What most people don’t know is how common it is to get HPV, but how it affects men. This is a big problem. The rate of diagnosis for men with throat cancer has already surpassed cervical cancer in women. This is HPV-related throat cancer in men and people don’t know that. They think it’s a woman’s cancer. We’re doing a big push to educate people that this affects men and women and more men if you’re going to look at cervical cancer.

What do you recommend for treatments or preventative measures?

I don’t want to cause a frenzy or be an alarmist. Let’s try to present the facts as well as I know them and I’m not a doctor, but it’s this, “Fourteen million new infections annually with HPV.” That means 14 million people will get HPV. 80% of those people will clear this infection with their own immune system, but for some reason, 20% or so, don’t. That means they have a bad pap smear. If you’ve ever had a bad pap smear, that is HPV. The problem with HPV is it can go away. You’re testing and perhaps, you are fine, but 50 years down the road, suddenly you get diagnosed with anal cancer, cervical cancer or throat cancer.

Is it something that stays in the blood system? If you’ve been tested for a bad pap smear, maybe when you were seventeen and then the next year, it’s gone. It’s something that you must always keep a lookout because it’s in the blood.

What would happen is if you’ve tested positive for HPV, it gets in the cells and once it’s in the cell, it’s in the cell. If that cell duplicates, then this is where you’ll get the colposcopy procedure done where they take a part of the cervix out. That’s done to stop the spreading of it. There’s a couple of things you can do to be prepared and protect yourself. There is a vaccine called Gardasil vaccine that is three shots. It covers the cancer strains that are the ones that cause cancer. There are hundreds of strains of HPV and nine of them are related to cancer. This vaccine prevents against those nine strains that are the dangerous ones. HPV 18, 16, 11, 13, 7, 9 are the strains.

I have personally had all the vaccines myself. Why did I do that at my age and then on my 50s? I have a doctor who believes that even if you don’t have a positive test for HPV, but you’ve been exposed to it at some point in your life is at one point you had a bad pap. It can’t hurt and it supposedly helps the immune system fight off any potential future infection stronger. If you didn’t have the vaccine, that’s how vaccines work. Other doctors disagree with that. They say, “Once it’s in the cell, it’s in the cell. It’s not going to make it go away.” I’d rather do whatever I could personally and I also feel like if I’m recommending the vaccine to people, I should get it myself. This was a vaccine argument and I try to be respectful of the people that have vaccine concerns and answer their questions.

As Director of Communications, what is your main role at the foundation?

I do a lot of things. I also oversee some of the programs that we get involved in. I do outreach and cross-promotion with other entities, other nonprofits, the American Cancer Society, and I tried to do all our social media. I try and find ways of what a great project would be. We had a great opportunity to make some money in Dallas, but the people in Dallas with the money wanted the money to stay in Dallas and Farrah’s from Texas.

I called up the American Cancer Society and found out that they’re building what’s called the Hope Lodge. Hope Lodge is a hotel for people that have no money that has a result of a diagnosis to come and stay so that they can stay and have free lodging and food while they’re getting treatment. We raised $100,000 in Dallas and we used it in Dallas at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, and they named a room after Farrah.

You’re being proactive with cross-promotional.

That cross-promotional stuff is what I try to do and I feel like that’s the best bang for our buck on how we can leverage her name.

If people want to find out more about the work that you do and about the foundation, where do they go? What websites should we give them?

We are on Facebook and Instagram. We are the www.TheFarrahFawcettFoundation.org and you’ll see what we’ve done. We did a huge fundraiser called Tex-Mex Fiesta, which raises money for HPV cancer research. We are trying to do a dream team with stand up to cancer for throat cancer. It’s still HPV-related. The mechanism for research, the treatment that you might come up with translates to other types of HPV cancers. That’s a good thing. If we study HPV throat cancer, we can apply that research to anal cancer. Cancer is on the rise. We wanted to do it that way.

I have to say with all that, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles and the show is La La Landed. Before we wrap up it’s a philanthropic town I have to say with extremely generous people, not with just their money, but their time. I feel like there’s a lot of give back here, which ultimately is the one thing that makes you feel like a fulfilled person when you give back.

Don't build your autistic child’s life around the autism. You try to help them in their weakest areas. Click To Tweet

There are people that supported us every year. We’ve done our fundraiser three times and we do make things happen. We want to be efficient in how we create projects and making sure that they are extremely effective.

The work that you do is admirable and the way that you’ve brought up your beautiful daughter, Abi, is amazing. Seriously, Christine, you are a force to be reckoned with. Every time we get together, you are inspirational. We have a mutual friend, Dani. We met through a dear friend called Maria, who unfortunately moved back to UK and Christine and I are still devastated. Honestly, every time Alyssa and I hook up with you, Christine, it’s always such a pleasure and we always learn something new from each occasion. We’ve all got to get together again soon. Thank you

It’s supportive for people to have good role models and everybody has a story. Everybody has difficulties in life. Everybody has struggles. The message is not necessarily your struggle, it’s how you rose above and didn’t become victimized. What was inspirational is how you pushed forward. In the words of Mick Jagger, “Keep moving forward.”

You have move forward. Thank you so much for coming onto the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure and delight to chat with you.

Thank you so much.

Thank you so much, Christine, for joining us.

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About Christine Romeo

LLL ROMEO | Funding Cancer Research

Christine Romeo currently serves as the Director of Communications for The Farrah Fawcett Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that focuses on HPV related cancers. The mission of the FFF is to fund HPV related research, support prevention and awareness initiatives, and those in need after receiving a diagnosis. Christine also functions as senior programs director and has connected the FFF with a variety of community programs ranging from supporting teens with cancer to holiday events supporting families that have been affected by a diagnosis. She has been with the organization since it opened it’s doors in 2010.

Prior to this, Christine was the Director of New Business at Blooms Ads, a mid-size media buying agency based in southern CA. She is a graduate of University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She spent her senior year as an exchange student at the University of Warwick in Coventry England, traveling extensively throughout Europe and spending time in Israel on a kibbutz.

She is the mother of two children and her oldest child has autism. She volunteers regularly for various Autism organizations, and has produced two music videos with the Spectrum Laboratory Band, a non-profit dedicated to using music to encourage growth in young adults with autism.

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