15 Minutes With: Jaclyn Smith Talks to HealthyWoman on the 20th Anniversary of Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis

by Lillian Whitaker



Jaclyn Smith, one of the original Charlie’s Angels, is an award-winning actress and entrepreneur who played Kelly Garret on the popular TV show for five years, among many other accomplishments. In 1985, Smith introduced a fashion line in K-Mart, becoming one of the first celebrities to develop her own brand. She has since gone on to develop brands in home furnishings, wigs, beauty and fabric. Smith recently spoke to our editor–in-chief about her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

HealthyWomen: I understand you were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 after a routine mammogram, and that even after you underwent a core biopsy, an ultrasound and a needle biopsy you weren't thinking you could have breast cancer. Can you talk a little bit about that thought process?

Jaclyn Smith: I will say when I went for the mammogram and came back another day for the results, and the doctor said to me, "Are you here by yourself?" And I said, "Oh, yeah." Because I still felt good, I never thought about breast cancer. I just thought, Well, that's a question they ask everybody.

The doctor said, "Well, I have some good news and some 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've gotten it early." And I think the first thing I said was, "Will I be here for my children?" And he said, "Yes, you will. You'll be here. You have a better chance of getting hit by a car." So I thought, Oh, okay. Are they telling me the truth? So then I just said, "Well, you know what, I want a mastectomy. I just want this off," My daughter was to go perform in New York for Alvin Ailey. She got the summer intensive.

"Yeah, let me meet the surgeon." I wanted to meet a surgeon right there on the spot, and he said, "Well, you go home and think this over." 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 get a mastectomy." He said, "Now, wait a minute, no you're not. We're going to research it. A lumpectomy with radiation is effective in certain situations." Then I hang up, I can't talk to him, I'm in traffic, 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 cope with it or think, How could this happen? What I learned from that experience, when you're called back to do some additional tests, even though they say “We don't think this is cancer,” take somebody with you because the word cancer makes you forget everything. You don't hear what they're saying. You're not thinking properly. You're not collecting your facts. I would say, Take your friend, take somebody with you. And the funny thing is, now, every time I go for a mammogram, my husband goes with me. Now that's a little babyish, but I just like it.

HealthyWomen: I don't think it's babyish, I think it's lovely. You’ve spoken publicly many times about how your friends formed a support network and got you through your breast cancer experience. Did you ask for support and help or were you reluctant to do so?

Jacyln Smith: Oh boy, the power of girlfriends, and they didn't relate it to anything but support and taking me to lunch and taking me to the radiation, I never once went by myself. They called themselves the Ya-Ya. Remember the book, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”? They did a book for me and it was about the Ya-Ya. It truly saved me.

1977 Charlie\u2019s Angels (David Doyle, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd & Jaclyn Smith) 1977 Charlie’s Angels (David Doyle, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd & Jaclyn Smith)

HealthyWomen: As women, we’re always the caregivers, and you are a mother. Did you ask for support from your friends or did they just offer it? Did you ever feel uncomfortable? Was it hard for you to be in that position as a caregiver 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 drives, 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'll never forget it. Now, one [of my friends] had already had breast cancer, and she knew a lot, and when I had to do all these scans and everything, she was right by my side. I sort of am a little nervous about saying that because some women have no one, and so what I learned is that there's always an organization or a support group out there where you can meet people. You can join a support group, and you can have a friend and somebody that you can relate to, so I think that's important for women to realize that help is there.

HealthyWomen: How can we best support someone with breast cancer?

Jaclyn Smith: Well, I think you say, Hey, if they're doing chemo, you offer to drive them, let's go to lunch,or you sit there and you read a book with them and you read to them, or there's so many ways — just talking, just communicating. I didn't ask for it. They go, Hey, we're going, and then we're gonna go here, we're gonna go there, and I don't want you driving. I did that for Farrah [Fawcett] to a certain extent later, when she was diagnosed with [anal] cancer. You take them a Pinkberry, you take a piece of German chocolate cake that they really love. There's the little things, just acts of kindness that see you through.

HealthyWomen: I read that you're very, very careful with your diet now.

Jaclyn Smith: Well, I am and then I'm married to a heart surgeon who encourages it and encourages working out, and he thinks that it's as much for your body as your brain. I think I am pretty good with eating right and exercising.

HealthyWomen: You alluded to it early on, but what was the treatment that you ultimately had 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 tell yourself? If you could tell yourself something back then?

Jaclyn Smith: Oh, well, not to think it's a death sentence because I really did panic. I had these young kids and they're everything and I thought, Oh, am I going to be here? And I didn't want to tell anybody. And then one of the rag sheets got it and then it was out in the open and then I realized that we get our support from people and that it's OK. And that's what I'd tell myself, Don't shut yourself into a room.

I was lucky because one of my one friends [who had breast cancer] did educate me, and I had a husband who educated me because I was [initially] going for a mastectomy. So I think I’d tell myself just not to panic in the moment and learn to go out on a limb. I always tell my children, Go on a limb. That's where the fruit is. Educate 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 with her diagnosis as well?

Jaclyn Smith: Yeah. And I must say Farrah was very brave and never gave up.

HealthyWomen: Yes, I’ve seen the documentary she made about her cancer journey, twice.

Jaclyn Smith: Yeah. She bore herself well, and my hat’s 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 a lot of people didn't really think much about, but it's very necessary for young boys and girls..

HealthyWomen: We do a lot of work around HPV and the vaccine at HealthyWomen.

Jaclyn Smith: That's good. That's perfect.

Smith with her son, Gaston; granddaughter, Bea; daughter, Spencer Margaret; and husband, Dr. Brad Allen Smith with her son, Gaston; granddaughter, Bea; daughter, Spencer Margaret; and husband, Dr. Brad Allen

HealthyWomen: Everyone's going to want to know how your health is now. How are you doing?

Jaclyn Smith: Well, I feel great. Working as hard as I've ever. In fact, I'm busier. And I must 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 “Charlie's Angels” movie. So what that did is say, "Hey, I'm not going to let grass grow under my feet. I had the opportunity. I'm going to work." And I think there was a resurgence of me getting out there again and not giving up and working and working. 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 apparel 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 with chemo and it was more of a fashion accessory. But we do a day at City of Hope, Jose Eber and I and we change women's lives. And one day, he puts a wig on, cuts it and they say, "I always wanted to be blonde." And all of a sudden, they're blonde. And you give them back their life and their femininity and their beauty. And so I have that. 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 being diagnosed is sometimes you retreat. I didn't. I got out, I worked. Maybe God was looking after me and saying, "Hey, you're being offered ‘The District.’ You're having a cameo in the ‘Charlie's Angels’ movie and you're launching a furniture line. Come on, get with it. And boy did I — and it's just been busy ever since.