Marcia Cross is a survivor.
When doctors told the Desperate Housewives alum, 57, that she had anal cancer in November 2017, the actress prepared for the fight of her life. “You have moments of terror but it’s beyond tears,” the actress tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “You’re in fight mode.”
Knowing her six-week treatment would be “gnarly,” Cross was comforted when she was told the type of chemotherapy she was given did not usually result in hair loss. She also relied on humor to help her through the process. “In the beginning, I just sort of lay down for the parting of the cheeks and I would float away,” she says, laughing. “Because what are you going to do?”
Several months after completing treatment, Cross noticed her hair starting to fall out. “It was disconcerting,” says the actress, whose doctor suspected the loss was a result of a condition called telogen effluvium brought on by stress rather than her chemo. “I was really trying to be okay about it shedding, but it didn’t stop.”
For more of Cross’ exclusive interview, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Truthfully, “I’m really glad it fell out,” she insists. “It was totally humbling and heart-opening. I am shocked at how many people struggle with hair issues. It widened and opened my compassion for the whole ride.”
The actress first revealed her diagnosis last September when she posted a photo on Instagram bemoaning her hair loss and asking her followers if they could relate. The deluge of support she received prompted her to share her story to help others who are dealing with the disease.
“I want to help put a dent in the stigma around anal cancer,” Cross says. “I’ve read a lot of cancer-survivor stories, and many people, women especially, were too embarrassed to say what kind of cancer they had. There is a lot of shame about it. I want that to stop.”
Now cancer-free for almost a year (her doctor says the probability of recurrence is very low), Cross — who has been busy shooting the pilot for a spin-off of Jane the Virgin for the CW — is also “much kinder and a million times more loving to herself” after her diagnosis.
“I got a clear scan, and then I heard my critical voice start to attack myself, which it has done my whole life,” she adds. “I thought, ‘So you’re going to get to live and then you’re going to do that?’ And for the first time I thought, ‘No. That critical voice is no longer acceptable. It is no longer allowed. That is the real cancer.’ “