This year, the holidays will be a little sweeter for Blythe Danner, who is revealing for the first time that she is in remission after a years-long battle with oral cancer, the same disease that killed her beloved husband Bruce Paltrow in 2002.
"Everyone is touched by cancer in some way, but it's unusual for a couple to have the same cancer," says Danner, 79, who is mom to Gwyneth Paltrow, 50 and Jake Paltrow, 47. When she got diagnosed in March 2018, "I remember I looked up at heaven and said to Bruce, 'Are you lonely up there?'" she says. "It's a sneaky disease. But I'm fine and dandy now. And I'm lucky to be alive."
Danner, an Emmy-winning actress known for her roles in Meet the Parents and on Will & Grace, was working in London in 2018 when "I started feeling very woozy and I was forgetting everything," she recalls. "And then I felt a lump in my neck, right next to where Bruce had found his [in 1999]."
She was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a relatively rare form of oral cancer that often develops in the salivary glands. "I kept it from my kids for a long time," says Danner. "I wanted to forge ahead as a mother, and I didn't want them to worry."
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock Blythe Danner
When she finally told her daughter, "I was obviously very shocked," Gwyneth recalls. "It was scary. And it felt really eerie because it was so similar [to my dad's]."
But Danner didn't dwell. And after two earlier surgeries, and several years exploring alternative treatments, the actress underwent a third surgery with Dr. Mark DeLacure in 2020, which succeeded in removing the cancerous tissue.
"She went through it with so much grace," says Gwyneth. "I was amazed at how strong she was able to be."
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic Gwyneth Paltrow and Blythe Danner
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Throughout her journey, which included radiation and chemotherapy, "I wasn't quaking in my boots," says Danner. "I don't have any fear of death at all."
The grandmother of four says that her views on mortality dramatically shifted after the death of Bruce, to whom she'd been wed for 33 years.
"You never get over that kind of loss," says Danner. "Bruce was the heart of our family. And life is so much paler without him around. But grief is the price we pay for love."
Mathew Imaging/FilmMagic Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner in 2022
These days, Danner surrounds herself with family — "nothing makes me happier than the kids," she says — as well as her advocacy work with the Oral Cancer Foundation, which strives to raise awareness of oral and oropharyngeal cancers, with which an estimated 54,000 Americans are diagnosed each year.
"Screening for the early signs by a dental professional is quick, inexpensive, and painless," says the Foundation's Executive Director, Brian Hill, who also advocates for vaccinating children for HPV, a virus that can lead to cancers in the mouth.
Says Danner, reflecting on Bruce's death and on her own battle: "I think we've all become somehow stronger. It's a bit of a crapshoot — this disease and this life. But I've had a career, great kids and a loving husband. I'm very grateful."
For more information, visit the oral cancer foundation.