Daytime Emmy Award-winning actress Susan Lucci, is best known for her effervescent personality, beautiful smile, and for playing the dynamic Erica Kane on All My Children for more than 40 years—who was often touted as the most popular soap opera character of all time. After surviving a major heart attack in 2018, Susan's focus shifted, and she became a fierce advocate for women’s heart health, joining the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” movement as a national ambassador.
But on a January evening just last year, the 76-year-old found herself falling into an old pattern of ignoring and brushing off her symptoms, and it almost cost her her life…again. In the newest issue of FIRST for Women, Susan opens up in an exclusive interview about how she pulled through and what she's doing differently now. Here's a sneak peek:
"Put yourself on your to-do list…I didn't"
“Those first three years since I avoided my 'widow maker,' I had been talking to women about what I had learned, trying to pass on my good luck and share my takeaways from my experience,” Susan told FIRST of the advocacy she began after her first heart attack, which is called a 'widow maker' because it's caused by a full blockage in the heart’s largest artery—and only 12% of people survive. “I had two stents put in, but I was fortunate and I wanted to tell other women to listen to their bodies. If it’s not normal to you, don’t sweep your symptoms under the rug. And don’t be afraid of your doctor. Put yourself on your to-do list. As women, we do for everyone else: we’re taking the children to pediatricians, advocating for the ones we love…but we are not on that list.”
"Why would my jaw hurt?"
But late one night at the start of last year, Susan wasn’t taking her own advice. “I’m ashamed to say I reverted back to my original behavior, which was to say to myself, ‘Oh, it’s nothing, it’ll just go away’ and ‘I can’t go to the hospital right now.’ I was shocked that I was feeling some of the symptoms I felt in 2018 again and just thought, ‘This is crazy—it can’t be happening again.’”
But it was happening, and Susan knew the statistics: cardiovascular disease accounts for one-third of the deaths in U.S. women, and is number one killer of women. But even though Susan was experiencing symptoms similar to those she had experienced during her first heart attack, like shortness of breath, radiating chest pain and a sharp pain in her jaw—a lesser known symptom of heart attacks in women—she still wasn’t sure. “It seems so counterintuitive: why would my jaw hurt? But it’s actually a common symptom of a heart attack in women. And I remembered an interview with a woman I heard a long time ago that taught me that sometimes, the pain from a heart attack is something you feel in the jaw.”
"Even after all the signs, it was a shock"
Still, it was only when her husband, Helmut, returned home from his night of playing cards with friends that Susan began to come around to the idea that something was truly wrong.
“He said ‘We have to call the doctor,'” Susan recalls of the moment that changed everything. “I said, ‘Honey, it’s 10:00 at night, I can’t bother him…’ But he just said, ‘You have to.’”
Saying she’d think about it, Susan laid down in bed—the pain still radiating through her rib cage and jaw—and finally made her choice. “We met my doctor at the emergency room,” Susan recounts, where she learned that she had a 75% blockage in her third artery and would need another stent.
“Even after everything, all the signs, it was a shock,” shares Susan, who has since doubled down on her commitment to listen to her body. “I inherited the calcium buildup in my arteries from my dad. It’s hereditary and builds up over a lifetime, so when I asked the doctor if there was something that I’m doing to cause this or anything that I can change, he said no. This event in January was a little different because there was some cholesterol involved. It was post-COVID and my husband was cooking and I was eating anything that wasn’t nailed down that he made, which was so different for me.”
"I know I was truly lucky"
Thankfully, after pulling through that scare, and getting to the doctor before she had a second heart attack, Susan became more mindful, going back to her tried and true Mediterranean diet and daily Pilates. But then, she suffered a heart shattering injury of a different kind: losing her husband of 53 years, Helmut, just two months after her emergency surgery.
“He was the love of my life,” Susan shares. “There are four factors that motivate us all: response, recognition, security and adventure, and they were all so true of my relationship with my husband. And laughter. When I lost him, I felt like half a person. Nothing else mattered and I wasn’t really sure if I would ever go on stage again or in front of the camera. So the better part of this year has been trying to get back to myself, and being grateful for the blessings I’ve had. To have known the kind of love that I experienced from my husband: I know how lucky I was to have that and I knew it then. I always knew it.”
"Caring for yourself is most the important thing"
Today, Susan keeps that gratitude going with the help of loving friends, family and the words Helmut used to say engraved on her happily healthy heart. “When things were maybe a little bit difficult or challenging, he used to say in his adorable Austrian accent, ‘After the rain, the sun, she shines. It’s a wonderful thing to keep in mind. I’m a work in progress, but I am making progress. I have learned acceptance and I have learned empathy. And I think that both acceptance and empathy come from challenges and going through grieving. I’m glad I acquired them, but I wish I didn’t have to learn those things at the same time. Still, I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to lose the fire in my belly. We’re never finished growing—but loving yourself and taking care of yourself is the most important thing.”
For more of Susan's brilliant tips on how she beats stress, keeps her bones healthy and boosts energy, pick up the latest issue of FIRST for Women at your local grocery store or subscribe and save here!
Interview/reporting done by Bonnie Siegler.