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Taking the reins on 'Gossip,' and cancer

May 03, 2008|Dawn MacKeen | Special to The Times

One afternoon last fall at Warner Bros. studios, Jessica Queller found herself acting more like a middle-aged woman than the youthful TV writer that she is. While tossing out lines for the headmistress, a new character on "Gossip Girl," the popular teenage soap opera she works on, Queller began formalizing her diction and sitting erect as a chalkboard to channel the drab disciplinarian. So what did her colleagues do? As a joke, they named the character "Headmistress Queller."

"I found out when I saw it on TV," Queller said recently over lunch, smiling as she recalled the moment that made her very cool with her little cousins. Wearing a cream-colored dress that was a good deal more stylish than her fictional counterpart's buttoned-up attire, she laughed when asked if there are any similarities.

The real-life Queller is one of two writers on the show who graduated from -- or survived -- the viciousness of the moneyed Manhattan private schools that are the show's milieu, and she often draws upon that experience. In recent years, though, Queller, 38, has felt like a survivor of a much more painful ordeal in her life. That one hasn't ended yet and seems renewed for yet another season. After watching breast and ovarian cancer take hold of her mother, Queller discovered that she carries a genetic mutation that increases her risk for the same diseases. And so in an attempt to evade her mother's fate, as she explains in her new memoir, "Pretty Is What Changes," she decided to remove her breasts, even though she didn't have cancer.

"The biggest trauma for me was witnessing my mother's suffering and death," Queller said. "My subsequent surgeries were not pleasant but were nothing compared to that. I'm hoping that if that story can help keep other women from dying and getting sick, then her death will not be in vain."

So she has promoted the issue at full speed, first writing an editorial several years ago in the New York Times, which led to an appearance on "Nightline," a book deal and now a full media tour, with stops on "Good Morning America" and NPR. The original charcoal drawing that accompanied the editorial hangs in her Hollywood Hills home, near sketches of her fashion designer mother's pillbox hats and pleated dresses, styles eerily similar to the outfits of the backstabbing Blair Waldorf on "Gossip Girl." Still, Queller said, all the publicity can be disorienting when strangers recite intimate family details, and it can be even embarrassing when a photograph of herself appears online, followed by the headline, "Why I Had My Breasts Removed."

Speaking so intimately about her body, she said, is not a natural inclination. "Had I not been public about this, I just would have been a television staff writer working up the ranks in TV dramadies," said Queller, who has also written for "Gilmore Girls," "Felicity" and "One Tree Hill." "The level of how exposing it feels is just mind-blowing. But that said, I know it's meaningful and I know it's going to help other women, so I'm trying to not think about it."

Another time bomb

These days, what she's trying to focus on is starting a foundation in her mother's name. Queller and her younger sister, Danielle, hope to raise money to fund research on cancer and groups that help at-risk women receive mammograms, MRIs and genetic tests.

If Queller hasn't embraced that role as fully as she would have liked, it's only because there's yet another potential genetic time bomb: To avoid getting ovarian cancer, she's decided to take out her ovaries too -- but she desperately wants a biological child first.

Having an alteration along the BRCA1 gene, as Queller does, or the BRCA2 increases one's lifetime risk of breast cancer by about 55% to 85% and also comes with a stronger likelihood of ovarian cancer. Doctors emphasize that a genetic test is not a crystal ball. "It can't predict when you will develop these cancers, or if you will develop these cancers," said Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, president of the American College of Medical Genetics.

Still, some recommend what's called a prophylactic oophorectomy around age 40 for premenopausal women with the mutation. For Queller, that's in a year and a half, a deadline that clearly weighs heavily on her.

Between publicizing her book and the cause and writing for "Gossip Girl" -- both of which can stretch the hours until after midnight -- it's been hard to carve out time for what she wants most: getting pregnant. She is single, so she began fertility treatments with donated sperm in September, hoping to conceive by the book's April publication date. But that didn't happen, and scripting this ending is proving much more difficult than that of a television episode.

"I spent those months really hoping and trying to get pregnant. I couldn't really imagine how I could go on dates with someone and be saying, 'I might be pregnant. I will find out in two weeks,' " Queller said. "So I have shut down my personal life. And I'm very conflicted about what to do."

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