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Charlotte Rae and Pancreatic Cancer

charlotte raeCharlotte Rae was a stage, television and film actress and singer who, at age 52, became widely known and loved as Mrs. Edna Garrett in the TV shows "Diff’rent Strokes" and its spinoff "The Facts of Life" (1978-1987).  As Mrs. Garrett, she was the cheerful, wise and strong housemother at a prestigious boarding school, where she always made the right decisions in dealing with issues facing teenager girls: dating, depression, weight control, alcohol and drugs.  However, in real life, she was an alcoholic who suffered greatly from her affliction. 
 
At age 56, she received a pacemaker to control her heart rate. At age 83, because of a family history of pancreatic cancer, a research group evaluated her family and she was diagnosed with that cancer before she had any symptoms.  Her mother, an uncle, and her elder sister all died from pancreatic cancer.  Most people with pancreatic cancer die within two years of diagnosis, and only four percent survive for five years, but after surgery and six months of chemotherapy, she appeared to be cured.  At age 89, she told her story in The Facts of My Life, an autobiography written with her son, Larry Strauss.  At age 91 she was diagnosed with bone cancer and died from that disease at age 92.
 
Early Life and Career
She was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents.  Her father owned an automobile tire business and her mother was a childhood friend of Golda Meir, who became Prime Minister of Israel. In high school, Charlotte appeared on the radio and acted in a children's theater.  She studied at Northwestern University, where she met several other aspiring actors, singers and producers. At age 22, she moved to New York City, where she worked in small theaters and night clubs and at age 28, started appearing on television.  At age 48 she moved to Los Angeles where, after working as a comedienne and bit-part actress, her big break occurred when she was cast in NBC's sitcom, "Diff'rent Strokes." She was so well received that the next year she was given a lead role in a spinoff that was created for her, "The Facts of Life".  After eight seasons, she felt that the show had run out of fresh ideas, so she quit and was replaced by Cloris Leachman for the show's final two seasons.
 

A Tough Life
Although she appeared on TV to be wise, happy and in complete control as the mother figure for teen-age girls, in her private life she was often miserable and out of control.  In college, she started to drink heavily and continued to drink so much that she was diagnosed as an alcoholic. At age 25, she married composer John Strauss, who was also an alcoholic.  In her forties, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and did not drink alcohol for the last fifty years of her life.  
 
After 25 years of marriage and two children, her husband told her that he was really bisexual and they divorced when she was 60.  When she met her husband's new partner, she said, "At least he's a nice Jewish boy."  After her divorce, she had many relationships but never remarried.  Her ex-husband eventually gave up drinking after he was told that he had cirrhosis of his liver caused by his drinking. They remained friends, and she cared for him after he was eventually crippled by more than 30 years of Parkinson's disease. He died at age 90.  Their older son was autistic, suffered from seizures and died in 1999.  Their younger son, Larry, became a successful high school teacher and co-wrote his mother's autobiography.
 
Pancreatic Cancer   
Because of Charlotte Rae's family history of pancreatic cancer, she was fortunate to receive a very early diagnosis as part of a research program.  However, most pancreatic cancers do not run in families, with fewer than 10 percent of cases associated with specific gene changes. These genetic factors include: 
• hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome 
• familial atypical multiple mole melanoma 
• familial pancreatitis 
• Lynch syndrome 
• Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (colon polyps) 
• Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome 
• Neurofibromatosis, type 1 
• Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type I (MEN1) 
 
Non-genetic lifestyle factors associated with increased risk for pancreatic cancer include tobacco use, alcohol use, excess weight (particularly excess belly fat), workplace exposure to certain chemicals such as dry cleaning or metal working,  diet low in fruits and vegetables, diet high in meat, and lack of exercise.  Other risk factors include African-American heritage, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and infection of the stomach with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). Risk is higher in men than women, and increases with aging.
 

 
April 22, 1926 – August 5, 2018
August 12th, 2018
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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