Living strong

  • Brooke Fisher<br>Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:46am

Andree Rice’s wish list is now considerably shorter after she met her two heroes — Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey.

In the same day.

With a record like that, crossing off her battle with breast cancer should come easy to the former Meridian Park School teacher.

Rice, 40, joined Armstrong on the Oprah Winfrey Show, which airs today, Feb. 11, after members of her e-mail prayer group sent letters and e-mails to the show’s producers, explaining why Rice deserved to meet Winfrey and Armstrong.

Armstrong, a national and world champion cyclist and six-time winner of the Tour de France, is a survivor of testicular cancer. Similar to Rice’s battle with stage 4 breast cancer that has metastasized to both lungs, Armstrong’s cancer also spread.

“Lance had testicular cancer, to the lungs and brain,” Rice said. “His prognosis was as horrible as mine.”

Hundreds of letters poured into the studio — which is not surprising considering Rice’s extensive fan club — as people sent messages. Rice, in fact, knew that her younger sister, Leslie Pu’u-Robinson, had asked people to write to Oprah. Still, Rice decided not to get her hopes up.

“If it was meant to be, I knew it would happen; I didn’t obsess about it,” Rice said. “My focus now is on cancer and having cancer leave my body.”

The planning started in November, when Pu’u-Robinson asked Rice’s e-mail prayer group, comprised of friends, relatives and even strangers, to write letters to Oprah. The target date for all letters to be sent was Nov. 17.

On Sunday, Jan. 23, Rice’s husband, Bob Rice, received a phone call from the producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show, telling him that the filming crew would be at their home in a matter of hours. Not wanting Rice to find out, he called one of her friends, who started a telephone chain, telling Rice’s friends to gather at 3 p.m. that very day.

The family was in the kitchen of their Bothell home, with daughter, Madison, 9, when the doorbell rang. Rice ran down to answer the door with her husband, who flung the door open.

“I had no clue, and people usually can’t pull the wool over my eyes,” Rice said. “They said this was the largest number of people they had seen rallied when filming a “Wildest Dreams Come True” show.

Rice was not only greeted by a camera crew hired by the Oprah Winfrey Show, but about 100 friends were gathered in front of the house, holding yellow and pink balloons and wearing leis. Rice’s former Meridian Park students brought her a crown and wand, and she started screaming, crying and jumping up and down.

The camera crew interviewed people gathered in front of Rice’s home, collected pictures from frames and filmed the family doing “normal, real-life stuff,” including Rice’s nightly injections, which maintain her white blood cell count.

The producer told Rice that her family would be flown to Chicago, Ill., the next day, where they would stay in a hotel until the filming of the show on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

With only two day’s notice, Rice’s family members, including her mother, two sisters and brother were able to make travel arrangements to Chicago, coming from destinations such as Hawaii and Utah.

“They were all able to make it,” Rice said. “My brother and sister got to the show just hours before.”

Minutes before Rice went onstage, the impact of being on the show hit her when she saw Winfrey, Armstrong and Sheryl Crow sitting onstage. In the audience were her husband, daughter and family.

“I started shaking like a leaf and crying like a baby,” Rice said. “I stood there for 30 seconds, crying.”

Winfrey asked her to come onstage and after walking out, Rice gave Armstrong and Crow each a hug.

“I told Lance, ‘You have no idea how this will carry me through,’” Rice said. “When I have bad days, this will carry me through.”

Rice’s husband said it was extremely difficult to keep the secret from his wife. Armstrong and Winfrey have always been sources of inspiration for his wife during her battle with cancer, he said, and if there was any show she could have been on, and anyone she could have met, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

“It was good medicine for her, I think being on that type of adrenaline high is healthy,” her husband said. “Andree is always smiling and laughing and that just added to it.”

In June 1999, Rice was first diagnosed with breast cancer, just three days before her 35th birthday. She fought the cancer with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She was then re-diagnosed in May 2003, with breast cancer that had metastasized to both lungs.

Rice was told the prognosis for most people with breast cancer with metastases to the lungs was an average of five months to two years. She has now been on weekly chemotherapy for 20 months, which doctors tell her is maintenance for the disease.

“My oncologist says I have beaten the odds,” Rice said. “And is amazed at how well I am doing.”

Rice, who was born in Hawaii, taught first-grade at Meridian Park School for about 13 years, before her weakened immune system no longer allowed her to teach.

“Teaching first-grade is my passion, I miss those kids so much,” Rice said. “It is hard to cope with not teaching.”

Pu’u-Robinson said that although it is difficult for her sister to not be able to teach school anymore, she is now able to teach people about the disease and how to be optimistic. Her sister is the most joyous person, she said, and is determined to win her battle against cancer.

“It is tough when they give you a death sentence, you can accept it or reject it,” Pu’u-Robinson said. “She has not only rejected it, but is determined to beat it.”

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