Suzanne Somers was a famous actress who is remembered for her roles on the popular TV sitcoms Three’s Company and Step by Step. She was also a best-selling author, singer, promoter of beauty products and spokesperson for various alternative health treatments.

On October 15, 2023, Somers died of breast cancer the day before her 77th birthday. She was first diagnosed with stage II breast cancer twenty-three years earlier and was treated with surgery, radiation and other treatments, some conventional and some controversial. She was not treated with chemotherapy, chemicals used to kill cancer cells. She then spent many years in remission, but about three months before she died, she announced that the breast cancer had returned.

Early Life and Rise to Fame
Suzanne Marie Mahoney was born near San Francisco on October 16, 1946, to a mother who was a medical secretary and a father who was a laborer and gardener. Her father was an alcoholic who abused Suzanne so much that she wet her bed until she was 12 years old. Her father’s all-night raging and screaming kept her awake so she slept at school and as a result, did very poorly in her school work. At age 17, she hit her father on the head with a tennis racket after he ripped off her prom dress and told her that she was “nothing.” She compensated for her horrible home environment by becoming a lead actor in high school plays. She starred in H.M.S. Pinafore and won the “Best Doll Award” for her performance in the senior musical, Guys and Dolls. She went to Lone Mountain College, but dropped out at age 19 when she found that she was pregnant. She married the child’s father, Bruce Somers, and when they divorced in 1968, she kept her married name. She then worked as a prize model on The Anniversary Game, and began an affair with the show’s married host, Alan Hamel. He eventually got a divorce and married Somers in 1977.

Somers began to get small parts in films and many different television shows. She got her big break when she was hired to appear as Chrissy Snow on the ABC sitcom, Three’s Company, from 1977 to 1981, and continued her success in the role of Carol Foster Lambert on Step by Step from 1991 to 1998. She then maintained her high visibility by demonstrating the “Thigh-Master” in TV commercials. She authored several best-selling books including two autobiographies, a book of poetry, and various diet and health books. In some of her books and public appearances she recommended products and supplements that were very controversial, and she formed a company that sold many of these products. To her credit, she did all of this in spite of medical problems including her breast cancer, a fractured hip from a fall, and neck surgery.

Controversial Treatments
Somers was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2001. Stage II breast cancer means that the cancer is located just in the breast and possibly in the lymph nodes around the breast. She had surgery to remove the cancer followed by radiation, but she did not take chemotherapy in which chemicals are given to destroy cancer cells. She claimed that after her treatment, she did take “natural plant-based bio-identical hormone replacement creams to stay balanced and help boost her sex drive with her husband of more than 40 years”.  In 2006, six years after her diagnosis of breast cancer, she wrote Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bio-identical Hormones. The book recommended bio-identical hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. This brought tremendous criticism from the medical profession because taking the real human hormones, estrogen and progesterone, is associated with increased risk for breast cancer (BMJ, 2020 Oct 28:371:m3873) and increased breast density, requiring a breast cancer work-up (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2017 Sep 1;109(9):djx001). They are also associated with vaginal bleeding, dementia (Neurology, 2022:10.1212), and strokes, blood clots and heart attacks (JAMA, 2011; 305(13):1305–1314).

Bio-identical hormones are similar to hormones made in the human body, but they come from plants or pregnant mares urine, or they are manufactured in a laboratory. Her books recommended compounded bio-identical hormones that are usually made from parts of naturally derived hormones that are not regulated by the FDA. There is no way to know what is in many of these bio-identical hormones, and we do not have data on safety or beneficial effects. Her book, Knockout (2009), promoted alternative cancer treatments and was criticized by the American Cancer Society. 

Along with her support of various alternative treatments, most of her health books did recommend the very important health benefits of: eating lots of fruits and vegetables, getting at least eight hours of sleep each night, exercising at least three times a week, eating only unprocessed foods and eliminating toxic chemicals around the house.

Understanding Cancer
Normal cells are not supposed to live forever. The DNA in cells in your body causes cells to self-destruct after a certain number of doublings. This is called apoptosis. For example, skin cells live only 28 days and then die. Cancer means that the DNA is damaged, so a cell tries to live forever. Cells that do not die can overgrow and spread, which is the definition of cancer (Nature, Jan 3, 2018;553:171–177).

Everybody produces cancer cells every day. However, your immune system can tell that cancer cells are different from normal cells, so it searches out and kills cancer cells just as it kills invading germs. When a cancer grows, it means that your immune system has lost its ability to tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells, so it allows cancer cells to survive. Breast cancer cells never kill a person as long as the cancer cells remain in that organ and do not destroy the organ. However, if the cancer cells spread to other places, they can destroy the other organs. If breast cancer spreads to the brain, it can destroy the brain.  If it spreads to the liver, it can destroy the liver, and so forth. The cure for cancer will probably come from teaching the immune system to recognize that a cancer cell is different immunologically from a normal cell. Then your immune system will again be able to recognize that a cancer cell is different from a normal cell and destroy it before it spreads anywhere else. We have some of these treatments available today, but they can have serious side effects so they are reserved usually for only the most serious cases.

What We Can Learn From This
Results of treatment for some cancers remain unpredictable. Doctors do cure many cases of cancer and fail in others. If you suffer from cancer, your doctor should recommend treatments with the best statistical chances of helping you.

Suzanne Marie Somers
Oct 16, 1946 – October 15, 2023