February 13, 2012 12:00 PM

Suzanne Somers isn’t what folks consider shy. Over the years she has publicly battled breast cancer and promoted the use of controversial hormone therapies to combat aging. So anyone visiting her at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center last August shouldn’t have been shocked when the ThighMaster maven kept flashing her latest medical milestone: her brand-new breasts, which were reconstructed with a procedure using her own stem cells. “If anyone came into the room, I would be like, ‘Look!'” says Somers. “Initially they didn’t even feel like mine, so they were easy to show. I’m getting a little more modest again.”

She will, however, boast about the surgery: Plastic surgeon Dr. Joel Aronowitz used stem cells harvested from the fat in Somers’s stomach to reconstruct her right breast, which was misshapen after undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation to treat stage 1 breast cancer in 2000. (For more on the surgery, see box.) The TV icon, 65, is the inaugural patient to undergo the procedure as part of a new clinical trial, which was approved by an independent medical board, and she’s thrilled with the results. “It’s soft and feels just like the other one,” says Somers. “This is a game changer. I’m proud to have started the ball rolling.”

Many in the medical community aren’t so quick to celebrate. “This is an experimental procedure,” says Dr. Peter Rubin, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It’s not ready for prime time yet.” Two major concerns: Stem cells may have the potential to stimulate the growth of cancer cells, as demonstrated in some animal testing, and, like any breast surgery, the procedure could interfere with cancer screenings. “There is absolutely no evidence of that,” says Aronowitz. But he stresses that examining the long-term effects of stem-cell reconstruction is a major focus of the trial. “The study involves follow-up imaging to assess how patients are doing,” he says.

Somers’s post-surgery joy is a far cry from how she felt 12 years ago when doctors discovered a malignant tumor in her breast. After going under the knife to remove the mass, “my jaw dropped when they took the bandages off,” says Somers. “Sixty-five percent of my breast was gone. I had a DD on one side, and on the other side I could barely fill a B cup.”

Her new lopsided silhouette was a shock to the actress, who became a household name playing the bombshell-next-door on the hit ’70s sitcom Three’s Company. “My breasts were a huge part of my career,” Somers says. “Chrissy Snow was the Queen of Jiggles! I had these beautiful breasts, which I had never appreciated. Then I looked down and went, ‘Oh.’ That was hard.” Helping to soften the blow was the support of her manager and husband of 34 years, Alan Hamel, 75. “It doesn’t matter what I look like when I get undressed; he tells me I turn him on,” she says.

But there was one nagging reminder: “To look even when I went out, I wore a prosthetic in my bra that would push up what little I had,” says Somers. “A couple of times it slipped out. I looked down and there was something around my waist that shouldn’t be there! It was mortifying.” Still, the star never opted for implants or a TRAM flap reconstruction, in which muscle, fat and blood vessels from a woman’s lower abdomen are transferred to her breast. Along with post-op scarring, “the look is not natural,” she says. “I told my doctor, ‘Something better will come along.'”

Somers is no stranger to finding medical alternatives. She famously declined chemotherapy in favor of a natural treatment using iscador, a mistletoe extract that some believe helps boost the immune system. And her antiaging method of choice? Bio-identical hormone therapy, which regulates a woman’s estrogen levels using soy and wild yam extracts and is widely debated among doctors. While Oprah Winfrey once declared that Somers “might be a pioneer,” alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil told Dateline, “she has put out a lot of misinformation.” Despite the critics, Somers has built a multimillion-dollar empire complete with natural beauty products and self-help books. “Somebody has to push the envelope,” she says.

That’s just what she did when she researched a stem-cell breast reconstruction procedure that’s existed in Japan for the past decade and then teamed up with Hollywood Presbyterian last year to launch a U.S. clinical trial to explore the procedure, which now has 10 more patients. Now Somers says she feels whole again: “It’s wonderful to look down and see no scars, no foreign objects-just me.”

People TABLET BONUS VIDEO Somers: In Her Own Words

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