One of the original Charlie’s Angels, Jaclyn Smith is an award-winning actress and entrepreneur who played Kelly Garret on the hit TV show for five years, among many other achievements. In 1985 Smith introduced a fashion line to K-Mart and became one of the first celebrities to develop her own brand. Since then she has started developing brands in home furnishings, wigs, beauty products and fabrics. Smith recently spoke to our editor-in-chief about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
HealthyWomen: I understand that you were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 after a routine mammogram, and that even after you had a core biopsy, an ultrasound, and a needle biopsy, you didn’t think you might have breast cancer. Can you tell us something about that thought process?
Jaclyn Smith: I’ll say it when I went for the mammogram and came back another day for the results, and the doctor said to me, “Are you here alone?” And I said, “Oh, yes.” Since I was still feeling great, I never thought about breast cancer. I just thought, that’s a question they ask everyone.
The doctor said, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” and I said, “Oh.” He asked, “What do you want first?” I said, “Just tell me.”
He said, “Well, you do have breast cancer, but it’s small, and we got it early.” And I think the first thing I said was, “Will I be here for my kids?” And he said, “Yes, you will. You’ll be here. You’re more likely to get hit by a car.” So I thought, oh, okay. Are they telling me the truth? So then I just said, “You know what, I want a mastectomy. I just want this done,” My daughter was going to perform in New York for Alvin Ailey. She got the summer intensive.
“Yes, let me meet the surgeon.” I wanted to meet a surgeon on the spot, and he said, “Well, go home and think about this.” And I got in the car, I called my husband and I said, “You know, I have breast cancer.” He said, “What? You must be mistaken.” I said no.” And I said, “I’m going to have a mastectomy.” He said, “Wait a minute, no you’re not. We’re going to investigate. Radiation lumpectomy is effective in certain situations.” Then I hang up, I can’t talk to him, I’m in a traffic jam, I hang up and I call my mom. “Mom, I have breast cancer.” “Honey, no No.” I said, “Yes, Mom.” “Are you sure?” No one believed me.
I don’t think they could handle it or think, how could this happen? What I’ve learned from that experience is that if you’re called back to do some additional tests, even if they say, “We don’t think this is cancer,” you need to bring someone with you, because the word cancer makes you forget everything. You don’t hear what they say. You’re not thinking right. You don’t collect your facts. I would say: take your friend, take someone. And the funny thing is, now, every time I go for a mammogram, my husband goes with me. Now that’s a little childish, but I just like it.
HealthyWomen: I don’t think it’s childish, I think it’s beautiful. You have often spoken publicly about how your friends have formed a support network and helped you through your breast cancer experience. Did you ask for support and help or were you hesitant to do so?
Jacyln Smith: Oh boy, the power of girlfriends, and they related it only to support and taking me to lunch and to the radiation, I never went alone. They called themselves the Ya-Ya. Do you remember the book “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”? They made me a book and it was about the Ya-Ya. It really saved me.
1977 Charlie’s Angels (David Doyle, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith)
HealthyWomen: As women, we are always the caregivers, and you are a mother. Did you ask for support from your friends or did they just offer it? Have you ever felt uncomfortable? Was it difficult for you as a carer to be in that position yourself?
Jaclyn Smith: You know what, I didn’t ask for it. They were there, they were there 100%, and we had fun. We had those lunches and the rides, and it was so genuine, it was authentic. They weren’t, “Well, let me do a good deed here,” they were one for all and all for one. I will never forget it. Now a [of my friends] had already had breast cancer, and she knew a lot, and when I had to do all those scans and everything, she was by my side. I’m a little nervous to say that because some women don’t have anyone, so what I’ve learned is that there’s always an organization or a support group where you can meet people. You can join a support group and you can have a friend and someone you can identify with, so I think it’s important for women to realize that help is out there.
HealthyWomen: How can we best support someone with breast cancer?
Jaclyn Smith: Well, I think you say: Hey, if they do chemo, offer to ride them, let’s go to lunch, or you sit there and you read a book with them and you read them aloud, or there are so many ways – just talk, just communicate. I didn’t ask for it. They go, Hey, we go, and then we go here, we go there, and I don’t want you driving. I did that for Farrah [Fawcett] to some extent later, when she was diagnosed… [anal] cancer. You take them a Pinkberry, you take a piece of German chocolate cake that they really love. There are the little things, just acts of kindness that will get you through it.
HealthyWomen: I read that you are now very, very careful with your diet.
Jaclyn Smith: Well, I’m and then I’m married to a heart surgeon who encourages it and encourages exercise, and he thinks it’s as good for your body as it is for your brain. I think I’m pretty good at eating well and exercising.
HealthyWomen: You alluded to it early on, but what was the treatment you ended up getting for breast cancer?
Jaclyn Smith: I had had a lumpectomy with radiation.
HealthyWomen: If you could go back 20 years to your diagnosis, what would you say to yourself? If you could say something to yourself then?
Jaclyn Smith: Oh, well, not to think it’s a death sentence, because I really panicked. I had these young children and they are everything and I thought, Oh, will I be here? And I didn’t want to tell anyone. And then one of the patchwork got it and then it was out in the open and then I realized we get our support from people and it’s okay. And that’s what I would say to myself: Don’t lock yourself in a room.
I was lucky because one of my only friends [who had breast cancer] raised me, and I had a husband raise me because I… [initially] going for a mastectomy. So I guess I would tell myself not to panic at the moment and learn to go out on a limb. I always tell my kids: Get on one leg. There’s the fruit. Teach yourself. Surround yourself with positive people and knowledge.
HealthyWomen: And you mentioned that you were also part of the support network for Farrah Fawcett. Did you pass that on to her when she was diagnosed?
Jaclyn Smith: Yes. And I must say that Farrah was very brave and never gave up.
HealthyWomen: Yes, I’ve seen the documentary she made about her cancer journey twice.
Jaclyn Smith: Yes. She has behaved well, and my hats off to her. She was kind of a shining star at the end of her life, in my book. She paved the way for awareness of the HPV vaccine, which many people didn’t give much thought to, but it is very necessary for young boys and girls.
HealthyWomen: At HealthyWomen we do a lot about HPV and the vaccine.
Jaclyn Smith: That is good. That is perfect.
Smith with her son, Gaston; granddaughter, Bea; daughter, Spencer Margaret; and husband, Dr. Brad Allen
HealthyWomen: Everyone will want to know how your health is now. How are you?
Jaclyn Smith: Well, I feel great. Work as hard as I’ve ever done. In fact, I’m busier. And I have to say that even during radiation I did a series called “The District” with Craig T. Nelson, and I launched a furniture line. And I did the second movie “Charlie’s Angels”. So what that did was say, “Hey, I’m not growing grass under my feet. I had the chance. I’m going to work.” And I think there was a revival of me to get out there again and not give up and work and work. And I’m still working. So it’s all good. It’s really good.
HealthyWomen: Do you have any new projects you can tell us about?
Jaclyn Smith: I have a new clothing line that I’m launching in the fall at Nordstrom Rack. I was with Kmart for 36 years and now I have a whole new line. And I have a wig line. I took that on not really thinking about women on chemo and it was more of a fashion accessory. But we do a day in City of Hope, Jose Eber and I and we change women’s lives. And one day he puts on a wig, cuts it off, and they say, “I’ve always wanted to be blonde.” And suddenly they are blond. And you give them back their life and their femininity and their beauty. And so I have. I have a fabric line with Trend, and I have a skincare line developed by my husband.
So I’m busy. But I think the most important thing to tell you about the diagnosis is that sometimes you withdraw. Not me. I got out, I worked. Maybe God took care of me and said, “Hey, you’re being offered ‘The District’. You’ve got a cameo in the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ movie and you’re launching a furniture line. Come on, get on with it. And boy did me – and it’s just been busy ever since.