2020 was a rough enough year as it is for the vast majority of people. A deadly and unexplainable virus plagued the world, the global economy ultimately pressed pause, and we were forced to physically isolate ourselves from everything we know and love. Surviving the COVID-19 pandemic took guts… but the pandemic had nothing on Marisa Sullivan’s year.

As an esteemed entertainment reporter, Sullivan’s daily life pre-pandemic consisted of glamorous experiences that few would ever have the chance to enjoy. From walking the red carpets of award shows, to attending glitzy charity galas and movie premieres, Sullivan was one with the stars, becoming more than just a fly on the wall. She was a trusted confidant, a respected ally, and a friend to some of the hottest names in Hollywood. That to say, this lifestyle abruptly came to a halt in early 2020, as the virus spread uncontrollably. Sullivan and her colleagues were forced to transition to remove work, writing from inside their walls and social distancing with the rest of the world. It was a bitter pill to swallow, albeit, completely doable. But the worst had yet to come. Sullivan was then diagnosed with cancer.

The renowned journalist and actress’ story of survival is one that is a true testament to her character, her grit, her unique outlook on life, and an inspiring tale of what happens when you’re forced to find your truest self, face uncomfortable truths head-on, and free yourself of what doesn’t serve you in order to lead your happiest life. She speaks exclusively to Thrive Global and holds nothing back.

You went through so much in a year as trying as 2020: COVID-19, cancer, relationship hardships, family discoveries. How do you handle all of that and grow with it rather than letting the weight of everything you’re experiencing consume you?
I have no idea how I handled everything I went through and am still going through. No, but really, shrug emoji. Honestly, one of the main ways I decompress and reset is simply by taking a bath. I need to be submerged in hot water at all times. Sometimes I would take two baths a day going through treatment. After a highly emotional week this week, I’m actually in the bath right now! I like to turn off the main light and have a hallway or closet light on, so yeah, I literally will bathe in the near-dark. It’s so calming. Throw on some spa music and it’s on. Instant home spa. And I can’t function emotionally without 7-8 hours of sleep. There’s nothing like a sleep recharge, it just makes everything better. Your body gets its heal on all night, and you can do a fresh reset in the morning. I used to be fine off of  just a few hours of sleep, but not anymore. Stay away. Stay far away. I did a ton of writing during some of my darkest times. Actually, my writing can be pretty dark even during good times! I’m a little left of center, which is a blessing and a curse, but overall I do not sweat the small stuff. So the universe just throws me GINORMOUS stuff at me to challenge me. I feel like I’m in a video game sometimes. But I always make it into the next room. The pain of what I’ve been dealing with will never truly go away I don’t think,  but I’m feeling pretty great right now because it is my one year “cancerversary” as they say, and I just go word that I am still free of disease! I just got my PET scan results. This is a big milestone for me. If triple negative breast cancer comes back, it comes back pretty fast. So far so good. Ironically, this is the same exact day that I received my initial amazing news last year, on my late aunt and Godmother’s birthday. She died from ovarian cancer, and she’s my eternal Angel. Also, she taught me how to gamble, which is one of my favorite pastimes.

Going through a pandemic whilst battling cancer… Walk us through that. It must be so different than experiencing that during any other year or time in your life.
Yeah, going through a pandemic during cancer was definitely a first! Oh wait, so was cancer. But this was a first for anyone with cancer. I kind of feel like a pioneer! I was already pretty holed up at home, so it wasn’t overly awful. I could sense a shift coming prior to the pandemic … it’s kind of weird, but I didn’t feel overly alarmed. Maybe slightly panicked when I found that surgeries were getting delayed. My team had my back though and there’s a priority list for people who needed it more than others. It was so solemn where I got my chemotherapy treatments, you could just feel the heightened anxiety and additional layer of fear in the room. I remember freaking out when I had to go into a store. At that point, we didn’t know what was happening. I had just auditioned for a sketch comedy group actually and had made the cut for the 2020 season to perform once or twice a month. Luckily, I chose to perform opening night because a few days later, everything shut down. The entire world I was a part of was done. Obviously, the rest of the world shut down as well, but LA and the entertainment industry were hit especially hard. Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m kind of known as this larger-than-life, life-of-the-party person, but I really enjoy quiet and being alone. When I started my treatments, I actually moved out of the apartment I shared with my husband so I could have complete peace. I had one goal, beat cancer, and I didn’t want anyone messing with it. Then coronavirus happened and we were like ok now what. We formed an alliance and I cooked all day every day for the first time in my life. We were too madly busy people who finally had some time to slow down. The pandemic actually brought us back together. But if I wasn’t feeling well I could tell him to bounce, so it was a win-win situation for me at the time. I advise anyone going through something highly taxing, every ounce of energy should be spent on beating the disease. Do whatever you can to get some peace; be selfish it’s OK. I really feel for the moms out there I don’t have any kids and that would just be so hard although distractions can be healthy so that’s not good either to just sit there and wallow in the emotion of it you should be doing something like I was writing for example. Distractions are good but if you do have kids have people help even for an hour or two so you can take a bath like yours truly or go for a walk or just have some time to yourself to think to cry to scream to do whatever you want to do. 

When your body goes into flight or fight mode – for you, was the answer always to fight?
I am absolutely the fighting Irish in a nutshell. I always fight. I seriously did feel a new kind of energy after my diagnosis. I’m pretty aggressive and proactive in general, but I felt this unstoppable focus and sometimes I miss that person … it really was this reserve energy that I had. My energy is a little all over the place so it was great to have just one goal; staying alive.

Does cancer run in your family? Were you surprised when you learned of your diagnosis?
Cancer definitely runs in my family but strangely I did not test positive for the gene mutations. My aunt died of ovarian cancer and so did my grandmother. I think there is bladder cancer in my family, and my mother was actually just diagnosed with melanoma. She’s going to be okay. They don’t think it has spread thank God. But it is on top of her head, so It’s going to be an uncomfortable surgery to deal with and she has to have plastic surgery and all of that my mother has been pretty much in perfect health her whole life this is her first major hiccup. I actually found the spot I was standing above her while she was in the pool and I saw it. I’m one of those annoying people that will come up to you and tell you you have to get them all checked out well if I do please listen to me because I’ve had a bunch removed and I know what it looks like and what needs to come off. Go get your skin checks!

What did you learn most about yourself – and your loved ones – while going through that?
I learned that I truly don’t need that many people to be strong (well, I always knew this) I was strong on my own. I really had a lot of support on social media which was surprising. I mean I guess I never thought about it helping me in that way, I never really shared anything private on social media, it was all about red carpet photos from working at Us Weekly and my concert shenanigans. All of a sudden, something more real and meaningful was going on. All of a sudden I had support from long lost friends I went to school with in grade school and I mean you name it everyone really rallied and showed up for me. Not to mention the countless messages of support to keep sharing my story. People were literally writing me saying that I helped them find their cancer, or my essays helped get them through a dark time where they couldn’t find any positive news about my type of cancer on the internet, and I am the one who solely gave them hope. It was pretty mind-blowing. And I don’t really judge my friends or family for how little or how much they communicated with me during that time because the people that know me know either I’m going to be OK and they know that I know that they’ll be there in a heartbeat if I needed anything. But it was surprising to find out who gave zero support at all you know. Again, I’m a big advocate of “you don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s life so don’t make it about you” there are some days where people text me and they could say that their entire family was kidnapped and I may be in the middle of a disaster and not be able to respond. Meanwhile somebody could text me the next day about what shoes they should wear on a date and I’ll be 45 texts deep into it. Social media and texting is so demanding and people get so offended if you don’t respond right away but it’s too overwhelming you should be able to respond in a timely manner some people don’t understand someone could get 100 messages and just because they didn’t get to yours doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. I’ve been riding all day for a site called survivor night and the last thing I wanna do after work is beyond my computer and phone if I stop to message everyone back all day long I’ll never get my work done and I’ll never have a moment to myself so people need to respect everyone’s space in the digital realm.

How long have you been in remission?
I’ve been in remission one year today!

Where were you at in your life when you learned of your diagnosis? What did you need to put on pause (if anything) and have you been able to resume things you had to postpone? 
I was a total disaster when I got diagnosed with cancer I honestly think I sensed it I mentioned before that I kind of sensed the shift happening and yeah at first I just thought it was me and then it warmed up being something much bigger but I sensed all of it something was brewing there was a huge transition coming and sometimes I deal with transitions in a very escapist way I was partying a lot and really unhealthy at the time. I was overwhelmed and overworked. I said to myself why am I putting this hard I’ve never partied this many days in a row I’m usually the type of person that will have a big night and then that’s it but I was going going going I literally told my friends that I was partying with the world was ending and then my world did not end, at least temporarily, and then the actual world pretty much stopped. Parties literally stopped. What a trip. See I was onto something now I don’t feel as regretful! I was living it up for the last time for a while. One major thing I’ve had to put on pause or maybe halt all together is having kids. I chose to do an emergency egg-freezing session real quick before starting chemo (that didn’t make me paranoid at all, nope!) because they explained that my treatment may destroy my chance to get pregnant. Well, that’s currently happening. To make matters worse, I took a pregnancy test and I got a false positive, so I went from being told I couldn’t have kids, to thinking I was pregnant, to finding out I was NOT pregnant. That was all this past week or two. It’s not the right time, but I have 5 eggs ready to roll when I choose to try. Not many, but what’s meant to be will be. Women in their 20s and 30s should freeze their eggs, just in case. Insurance companies are getting better I hear but nowhere near what it should be. Fertility preservation should be covered. I don’t even think it covered mine, actually I think something was just passed that allowed women with cancer to get a part of it covered, but I still had issues with the whole process. 

What’s it like getting back to action and what are you currently working on?
I have been getting back into action for sure and now that the pandemic is easing and things are opening up it’s getting exciting that things are coming back. I have a few projects in the works, a lot of breast cancer advocacy. Let’s F Cancer reached out to me today for something in the near future and I’m starting my own interview series called Breast Cancer Bandit … I’m definitely the bandit! Also, I was able to save most of my hair during chemotherapy treatment by using scalp cooling, a product called Dignicap, so I’ve had some outreach for some cool projects that have to do with that. I just did a social media project for Cindy Crawford’s new hair care line, Meaningful Beauty, which will be trickling out soon. I am still auditioning for films virtually which is nice (thank you, pandemic) and I just did a COVID-friendly monologue play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore written by Nora and Delia Ephron. There was a very powerful breast cancer monologue in there that I did. I’m a mentor for Imerman Angels, an organization out of Chicago (that’s actually where I’m from originally), they pair up mentors like myself with someone who was recently diagnosed with your same type of cancer, so for me, someone with triple-negative breast cancer, the same stage, etc. So I’m mentoring my first person now.  I work with a lot of celebrity survivors. I’m writing for a media company called SurvivorNet. I have over 200 articles published with them, all about cancer prevention and cancer awareness. It’s intense sometimes, but really rewarding and the people there are great. They’ve been really amazing and understanding with all I’ve been going through as it was a very hard transition to go back to work. I had a couple of recurrence scares so far this year, but luckily everything has been OK and I can’t complain. Things are looking much brighter now. I actually felt like I wasn’t doing that much yet but that sounds like a good start I guess, considering! That’s slow for me:)