Fans of Chicago Med‘s Marlyne Barrett will recall emotional scenes the actress filmed in 2019 when her character, charge nurse Maggie Lockwood, was battling breast cancer. Yet what the star hasn’t revealed until now is that she has been quietly facing cancer herself, ever since doctors discovered a football-sized tumor on her uterus and left ovary in July.
“I’m an extremely private person, but I felt a responsibility to tell my story,” says Barrett, 44, who has 11-month-old twins Joshuah-Jireh and Ahnne-N’Urya with her husband, pastor Gavin Barrett. “When my character went through breast cancer, I had a sea of people reach out to me through social media. They brought me courage, and so I felt a sense of inevitability to meet their hearts where they met me.”
Barrett, who is also known for her role on The Wire, says she also hopes to inspire others to share their own painful or uncomfortable truths. “We as human beings are so scared to face the mortality of life, or to even pronounce the word cancer,” she says. “But we have so much more strength inside of us than we think.”
George Burns Jr./NBC
Barrett’s arduous cancer journey began two months ago when, following a hernia repair in April, she started feeling off. “I had this accumulation of fluid [in my abdomen] that I couldn’t shake,” she says. “I looked like I was nine months pregnant. And I also had shortness of breath, but no pain, which was interesting.”
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On July 18, doctors informed Barrett that she had a mass on her ovary and uterus; the actress was stunned by the news. “The initial experience was a shock, a shock to my womanhood,” says Barrett, who has no family history of either uterine or ovarian cancer. “I didn’t believe them, but when they showed me the CT scan, I went, ‘Oh my word.’ The first questions were, ‘Am I going to live?’ I just fell into my husband’s arms. It still takes my breath away when I think about it.”
Despite her fears, Barrett jumped into defense mode as doctors informed her she needed “aggressive” chemotherapy before an eventual hysterectomy. “The best way I could experience was to meet her,” she says. “There’s no running from it because it’s my life. And eventually you just surrender because it’s so much bigger than anything you’ve ever faced. I found this courage and I just hunkered down and said, ‘I’m going to face this.’ ‘ “
When it came to the inevitability that she’d lose her hair, “I didn’t want to give the power to chemo,” says Barrett. “My hair has always been an essence of beauty. But I took my own razor and I shaved my head. I did it in front of my babies so they’d see it was still Mommy. I wept, I wept, I wept. But it was a beautiful experience to do it in front of them.”
Throughout the journey, Barrett has also found endless comfort in Gavin, whom she married in 2009. “I’m married to the most incredible man,” she says. “I get pins and needles in my limbs from the chemo and he’ll drop everything to give me food and hand massages. He’s dropped everything just to give me love.”
George Burns Jr./NBC
Throughout her physical discomfort, Barrett has worked steadily, leaning on her Chicago Med cast and crew for extra support when needed. “I’ve had people shave their heads on set to support me,” she says, fighting tears.
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In order to keep working, “I start an hour earlier to get my bearings before I start my day,” says the actress, who also takes naps and occasional days off to keep up her energy.
In addition, “because of the mass, my mid-range is a different size, so the costume department does an incredible job,” says Barrett. “Interestingly enough, my character on the show already wears a wig!” And ultimately, “work brings me a lot of joy right now,” she says. “It brings me a lot of reprieve to think about something other than, ‘When is my next chemo shift?’ and ‘How am I going to hug my children?'”
Now, as she prepares for her third round of chemotherapy at City of Hope in Los Angeles, Barrett says she’s taking it “one day at a time.”
“I have a wave of emotion that comes,” she admits. “But it’s okay not to have it all together. You can’t tangibly hold onto fear. But I’m holding onto faith.”
Continues Barrett: “I find new strength to carry on every day because of [my children]. I want to see them get married one day. And I will.”
Chicago Med airs Wednesdays at 8 pm ET on NBC.