Stephanie Czajkowski is one of those actors who, when you see her on a television program or movie screen, you say to yourself, “Wait, haven’t I seen her before?”
You probably have. Stephanie was the Vulcan science officer T’Veen in the last season of Picard, played Hammerhead for four seasons in the DC Universe’s series Doom Patrol, and was the Postmaster in the Harrison Ford vehicle Call of the Wild. Additionally, she’s appeared in small roles on popular series like Grey’s Anatomy and Shameless.
Stephanie is also a cancer awareness advocate, a passion rooted in the 18 months when she was diagnosed with three very different types of unrelated cancer – Papillary Thyroid Cancer, Stage 2 Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer, and Renal Cancer.
“We are still in a place where there’s a lot of misinformation out there about cancer,” she said. “Like having cancer only presented as ‘you live or you die’ – which is palpably untrue, as so many people are living with chronic cancer and more will come, so we need to change the narrative in how we talk about it and make it less of a stigma.”
Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Stephanie knew she wanted to act from the moment she saw a rerun of The Brady Bunch. (In fact, she asked her Mom to write to the local TV station about auditioning for the show, only to find out the series had ended a decade earlier.) When Stephanie was 12, the family moved to Naperville, Illinois, and she soon began participating in high school plays and summer stock productions. She later moved to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
Stephanie had already been working as a professional actress for more than a decade, appearing in about 20 television shows and movie shorts, when she began to have neuropathic pain in her fingers and wondered if it might be related to nerves in her neck. Instead, doctors found thyroid cancer. A few days before surgery to remove that tumor, she discovered a lump on her breast. After a biopsy confirmed it was also cancer, she had a double mastectomy, just two months after the thyroid surgery.
A PET scan later that year unveiled the slow-growing renal tumor. Once Stephanie completed her chemo and radiation treatments for the breast cancer, she took a three-week break and then went in for surgery to resect her right kidney.
Ironically, during this time, Stephanie’s career was going full steam ahead. She booked several roles whose shoots fortunately didn’t conflict with her treatment.
The frequent occurrence of unrelated cancers led doctors to recommend she have genetic testing.
“They tested me for 99 DNA markers and I came up negative on all of them,” Stephanie recalled. “The DNA people legitimately said to me, ‘You tested negative, but that probably just means they haven’t discovered the right marker yet.’”
During Stephanie’s cancer journey (she wryly calls it her “cancer train”), she met Dr. Joanne Weidhaas and learned about the KRAS-variant. Dr. Weidhaas asked if she wanted to be tested for this inherited genetic marker, as it is not included in the larger panel, and Stephanie said yes.
“When you go through these things, you want an answer as to why,” she said. “I had three unrelated cancers. I’ve been a fitness instructor my entire life; I’ve lived a pretty balanced life. Why was this happening?”
Stephanie tested positive for the KRAS-variant, which brought about mixed emotions.
“I didn’t know how to feel about it,” she said. “It felt good because I finally felt I had a reason, but you wonder – dude, am I a tumor farm?”
Because of the KRAS-variant, her breast cancer oncologist referred her to a gynecological oncologist to monitor her as a precaution.
“Now it’s just part of my normal checkup routine,” she said, along with frequent PET scans.
Those frequent checkups uncovered a small lesion on Stephanie’s hip bone in 2022 that turned out to be metastatic breast cancer. A change in medical protocols has completely resolved it, leaving her cautiously cancer free, she said.
One of the reasons Stephanie is willing to share her story is because of her family history. Her mother was diagnosed with Primary Amyloidosis that presented with Multiple Myeloma. Both her grandfathers had cancers, but Stephanie was unaware of a direct link to the cancers she was diagnosed with in her immediate family.
“Then I learned of a rash of cancers in my extended family on my mom’s paternal side that no one really talked about because no one assumed it mattered beyond the person who got it and their family,” she said.
And despite the concerns that come with knowing that she has the KRAS-variant, there is a power in having that information, she added.
“I can understand why people might not want to know,” she said. “I’ve kind of gone the opposite way because of my experiences. Why would you not get this test to see if it’s there, just to be aware of it? For me, it’s good to know. Because the best time to fight cancer is before it’s already spread, right when it starts.”