She survived a rare form of cancer in a part of her body that threatened both her life and career. After years of uncertainty and treatment, she’s grateful that the recording jobs are as plentiful as ever.After years of uncertainty and treatment, she’s grateful that the recording jobs are as plentiful as ever.
Kat Cressida has a lot to tell you.
That’s appropriate, considering her accomplished career as a voice actor.
Among her many animated characters are Dee Dee from “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Toy Story’s” cowgirl Jessie.
She’s matched what Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and other famous voices sound like when the real things aren’t available.
Cressida’s talked us through ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Super Bowl and NFL Draft specials.
She even provided the vocals for Constance, the Black Widow Bride, the only new character ever added to Disneyland’s iconic, 50-year-old Haunted Mansion ride.
Now, however, after mostly keeping her anguish silent, Cressida is ready to tell us how she almost lost her voice for good.
Some seven years ago, born in Long Beach and a current Sherman Oaks resident, was happily doing the job she loved in recording booths around town when she felt a funny thing in the back of her left cheek.
“I was doing voice-matching,” Cressida explained while talking at an Encino pizza parlor.
“You have to manipulate your jawline, and I was feeling something catch,” she said. “I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, when I pressed there it felt like there was something going on. But every single doctor, prior to 2012, said it was just a little cyst that would pop on its own. Nothing serious, nothing to be worried about.”
Those doctors were wrong.
It turned out Cressida had a rare form of cancer, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, in a part of the body where its tumors — which almost always manifest in the trunk or limbs — virtually never appear.
Because of that, it took agonizingly long to even diagnose Cressida’s condition properly. Then it took what seemed like an eon to find a surgeon who could (and was willing to) treat it. About the only saving grace for her during that uncertain period was that she suffered no physical pain.
The mental anguish, however, went off the charts.
“It was right next to the nerve that controls her face called the facial nerve,” Dr. David M. Alessi, the Beverly Hills surgeon who ultimately, successfully removed the growth, wrote in a letter provided to the Daily News. “It literally had to be peeled off the nerve. If the nerve was damaged or invaded by the tumor, then her right side of her face [would] become paralyzed and she would never speak normally again.”
“There are so many other careers that don’t require being directly in touch with your voice and face,” Cressida mused. “I happened to be in the one career where it was the most devastating thing that could have happened, other than the worst case scenario which may have happened.”
Before she found Alessi, the actress went through a Kafkaesque nightmare that, unique as it was, may ring alarming bells with others who’ve had difficulties with the medical system.
Her first doctor was the one who kept saying it was just a benign cyst – until, after several labs here concurred with him, one in Germany identified it as the lethal thing it was. The doctor changed his tune and told Cressida she needed it removed immediately . . . then sent her out to hunt for a specialist.
One she saw told her the tumor was already in her brain, inoperable and she had six months to live. Another, whom she refers to as Dr. Frankenstein, explained a process involving carving a giant hole in her head and tearing arteries out of an elbow and knee that would disable her arm for the better part of a year.
She found a more reassuring guy at UCLA who did not believe the tumor had reached her facial nerve but advised it be worked on immediately, confirmed that such jobs were his specialty . . . then said he was afraid he might damage her vocal cords in the process and didn’t want to do it.
“And this is, like, a specialist,” Cressida noted, still incredulous.
When she finally found Cedars Sinai-associated Alessi — whose combination of skills in surgical oncology, head and neck (including ear, nose and throat) care and plastic surgery were just what the operation called for — he expressed confidence. But he realistically noted that there could be three likely outcomes:
- A: Best case scenario: go in, carve it out, put her back together with three or four months of hard healing;
- B: He’d need to remove an artery from somewhere else, but she’d still be whole, able to move her face and have hearing and vocal cords. More extensive surgery and a longer recovery, though;
- Or C: If to save her life, he had to cut into her facial nerve, she wouldn’t move her face again and be unable to speak. He’d be ethically and morally bound to do that once he was in to see if it had become that aggressive.
“The worst of it was I was being told by everybody, including him, that they’re not really going to know until they get in there,” Cressida recalled. “There was no X-ray, no machine in existence at that point to figure out where exactly it was behind my jaw. Really, it’s the only place in the body where there’s so much intersecting at the same location: key nerves, key sensory mechanisms.”
After waiting for a special scope to arrive from Germany and a standby plastic surgeon to become available, a room designed for long surgeries was booked at Cedars and the operation was done in early January of 2013. As the anesthesia wore off from the 10-hour operation and Cressida, whose face had been temporarily paralyzed for the procedure, came in and out of consciousness, she’d look questioningly at Alessi.
“Every time he said ‘It’s the A version. You’re going to be fine,’” she recalled.
Not immediately, though. Cressida wasn’t prepared for how her body would react to such an invasive procedure.
The left side of her head swelled to about three times its natural size. She says she looked like “the Elephant Man with black Frankenstein stitches,” though Cressida’s caretakers were told not to let her look in mirrors.
There was also an infection to overcome and eight weeks of daily radiation treatments, all accompanied by the one horror she didn’t experience before the operation: massive pain. Later, Cressida had to fight for new insurance coding for the facial reconstruction surgery she so vitally needed; the healthcare industry didn’t want to recognize it as a medical necessity.
“People joke that I’m the Norma Rae of these things,” Cressida said.
Through as much of it as she could, though, Cressida kept her career going.
She’d piece together the occasional audition tape or ESPN spot in her home studio, although while her voice had been saved, it took months to relearn the mechanisms of it that made her sound like herself. Cressida took the surreal step of listening to old tapes of herself, to hear what she needed to sound like.
When meetings had to be taken, a friend who was a makeup artist for “The Walking Dead” would cover, airbrush and use a special grade of heavy makeup on the hole in her cheek.
“So it was kind of like Cinderella,” she explained. “I would have three or four hours to go have the meeting before it would start to expire.”
That makeup guy was one of the few people who knew what Cressida was going through. A manager had convinced her to keep her condition and the better part of a year it took to physically recover from the operation, essentially, a secret from her professional colleagues. She avoided any pity or special treatment she didn’t want that way.
But that also increased a sense of isolation that she’s still in the process of emerging from. Cressida reports that years went by when she was so depressed, she didn’t laugh once.
“There are so many instances where I wish that I’d had the courage to look someone in the eye and say, ‘Here’s a nutshell of what I’ve been through, and from time to time I’m probably going to be a bit more anxious or concerned than the average bear’,” said Cressida, whom you’d never notice went through such physical trauma now. “’Please know that I’m healthy, I’m well, I care deeply about this and I’m learning how to navigate everything that goes along with this.’
“Hindsight,” she shrugged.
Now, though, Kat Cressida is looking forward. She’s gradually been letting colleagues know about her ordeal. Even though there are still some days when they painfully overwork her mouth, she’s grateful that the recording jobs are as plentiful as ever.
And she’ll be talking some more. Cressida’s first public speaking engagement happens Saturday, May 18, at TEDxUCLA. The daylong event’s theme is time, and expect a now more joyful Cressida to speak about how her experience changed her perspective on the value of “wasting time” well.
She’ll also appear at assorted fan events and celebrations of the Haunted Mansion’s Golden Anniversary (such as Long Beach’s “Midsummer Scream”) later this year. And in the fall she’ll embark on a series of lectures about her medical drama and more.
“Kat will enhance our offering of Women and healthcare,” wrote Marc Goldman, whose Oxnard-based speakers bureau Damon Brooks Associates represents Cressida and others with disabilities. “Her heroic battle with cancer and her return to work [and her success] will add a new dimension to our disabilities in the workplace and women’s healthcare issues programs.”
“Part of what I’m going to be sharing, hopefully, with people who go through this is that there is no right answer,” Cressida said.
“If you’re fighting like hell just to survive and get back to some semblance of what you love doing, you’re not wanting to put out anything other than positive, forward-moving momentum.”
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Photos Credit: Hans Gutknecht
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