Whether you know her best as Carmela Soprano or Nurse Jackie, you’ve no doubt taken notice of the challenging characters played by veteran actor Edie Falco. But the star doesn’t just play strong women on TV—she also is one in real life. Case in point: In the midst of shooting The Sopranos, the show that turbocharged her career, the actor was dealt a devastating blow when she learned that she had breast cancer. The Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner didn’t miss a beat in returning to work, and now says surviving cancer helped her make a stunning realization that changed the course of her life. Read on to find out how Falco dealt with her diagnosis, and what she learned from her experience.
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Falco was in the thick of shooting Season 3 of The Sopranos when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. “It was a crazy day,” Falco said in an extended interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “I was diagnosed in the morning… and I had to be back at work by one o’clock,” she recalled. “We shot a scene… and I couldn’t remember my lines, which I never have problems with,” Falco said. “It was a real out of body experience. I couldn’t process the news I had just gotten.”
However strenuous, the star says she channeled her diagnosis into her performance as Carmela on the show. “It sure was easier to get to some of the darker emotions,” she told the Academy.
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Falco shared the news of her diagnosis with friends and family, but says she chose to keep it quiet on set, with few exceptions. When she did confide in select co-workers, she says it was primarily “so they could schedule around my chemo. I didn’t want anyone else to know.”
The late Sopranos headliner James Gandolfini noticed a change in his co-star, but the rest of the cast and crew took little notice of her fatigue, Falco said. “We were working very long, difficult hours. Everyone was exhausted, so I looked no worse than anybody else on that set,” she told the Academy. “Things just sort of chugged along.”
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Though Falco maintained an unchanged facade, she says surviving cancer had a profound impact on her internally. “I never really thought I’d have kids,” the actor told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Then the cancer thing kicked in. Once I realized I wasn’t going to die, it was like a light going on. I knew I wanted to be a mother.”
In an article she penned for Oprah.com, the actor added that this newfound sense of certainty helped her clear all obstacles on her path to motherhood. “I had eight months of treatment, and in the spring of 2004, when I was given a clean bill of health, I had one of those moments of clarity where all questions and debates just fall away. The direction was clear: I didn’t have to wait for the right man, or to be more ready, or to have more money or a bigger apartment. It was time for me to start a family on my own,” she wrote.
The following year, Falco adopted her son, Anderson Falco, and in 2008, she adopted her daughter, Macy Falco. Speaking with New York Magazine, she described the experience of adopting her children as “nothing but spectacular.”
As an actor revered for exploring the gray areas in life’s dramas, Falco seems reluctant to reduce her experience to a platitude. She admits that even after surviving a catastrophic diagnosis, life’s normal stresses have a way of pulling you back in. “You come out of it and everything’s different. It’s like when the house lands on the witch and everything’s in color. But it doesn’t last,” she told the Academy.
Still, Falco now says that she approaches life with an “attitude of gratitude,” saying she feels very “lucky” to have lived through her health scare. “I survived cancer, for heaven’s sake,” she told Fortune in 2019, noting that many women she knew with breast cancer died from the disease. “How could you not be grateful?”
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