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Roswell Park award recognizes star power in fight on breast cancer

Marcia Wallace, the wisecracking secretary on "The Bob Newhart Show" and the voice of Edna Krabappel on "The Simpsons," also is a cancer survivor.

Over the years, the comedic actress has carved out a second career as an author and advocate. Saturday, her work brought her to Buffalo, where she received Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Gilda Radner Courage Award.

An older generation will remember her from her zany 1970s role as Carol Kester on the Newhart series. Younger people will recognize her as the Emmy Award-winning voice of Bart's cynical, cigarette-smoking teacher.

She is a funny woman whose good humor has helped her cope with tragedy.

"People think laughter trivializes when things are tough, but it doesn't. I like what [author] Norman Cousins said about how laughter is the only wall between us and the dark. The alternative is to take to bed and suck your thumb," said Wallace, who is 64 and lives in Los Angeles.

In 1985, Wallace was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor. She underwent radiation and a lumpectomy, a less-invasive removal of the tumor rather than the entire breast.

She learned she had breast cancer after a "gut instinct" told her something was wrong with her body. Three days after confirmation of the diagnosis, Dennis Hawley asked her to marry him. They were wed in 1986 and adopted a boy, Michael.

Their happiness didn't last long.

Hawley was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer six years later and died in 1992.

Wallace said she dealt with her husband's illness by convincing herself that he would be among the small percentage of individuals who survive.

"It has to be someone. Surely, he could be that one guy," she said.

Wallace shies away from offering glib advice to others who find themselves dealing with cancer and death, saying much of what one hears comes across as platitudes and catch phrases.

"Life is messy. Everyone experiences it in their own way," she said.

What worked for her and her family, she said, was to not put off life.

Several years ago, the actress published an autobiography, "Don't Look Back, We're Not Going That Way," a phrase her "crazy and funny" father liked to use. The subtitle is a nice summary of what's inside: "How I Overcame a Rocky Childhood, a Nervous Breakdown, Breast Cancer, Widowhood, Fat, Fire & Menopausal Motherhood and Still Managed to Count My Lucky Chickens."

She now travels the country advocating cancer awareness.

She received the award at the cancer center's All Star Gala Night, a fundraiser expected to provide more than $400,000 for research, prevention and support programs.

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

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