April 05, 2017 01:15 PM

Erich Bergen is opening up about his life-changing health crisis for the first time.

In the new issue of PEOPLE, the actor reveals that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy to treat the disease.

Now in remission and ready to share his story, the actor — who stars alongside Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary — hopes to spread awareness.

“Men, in general, don’t like talking about this stuff, which is why men die from it,” says Bergen, 31. “There has to be more conversation about it — there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

A Harrowing Diagnosis

A New York native and musical theater professional, Bergen was wrapping up a national tour of the classic musical Anything Goes in February 2013 when he noticed a change in his body.

“I had a pain in my stomach. I thought I had just gotten lazy in my final week of the show and had pulled a muscle or something, so I kind of ignored it,” he recalls. The production wrapped, and Bergen returned home to L.A. a week later. During a visit to the gym, “I tried to do a sit-up, and I couldn’t.”

Still, Bergen wasn’t concerned until the next day when he noticed something was off when he looked in the mirror.

“There was obviously something wrong, something that I did not recognize, and immediately, what snapped into my head, was: ‘Oh my God, is this testicular cancer?’ ” he says. “Once I saw it in the mirror, I kind of already knew.”

The actor believes he was able to draw a conclusion from the symptoms because he was educated early on — by MTV, of all things.

“When I was a kid, I remember seeing The Tom Green Show,” Bergen says. “He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and it stayed with me. It saved my life.”

  • For more on Erich Bergen, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

Bergen knew he needed to book a medical appointment immediately.

“I didn’t really have a doctor — at least in my generation, it’s all walk-in clinics or specialists for whatever — and I thought, ‘Am I just going to go to this new, random person and just take down my pants?’ ” he recalls. “So I found one, told him what’s going on. He said, ‘All right, let’s see what’s going on: Drop your shorts.’ So I did, and he was like, ‘Whoa!’ So he sent me to get an ultrasound, and they’re doing the ultrasound on your testicles, and they have a young girl and another young girl in training. I thought, ‘Is this just a free show for everyone?!’ “

The same day he had the ultrasound, Bergen got a call from his doctor, confirming his fear. “That first time you’re told you have cancer is, at least for me, so dark. I remember being curled up on my couch: I wasn’t sad, I wouldn’t even call it scared. It’s a complete out-of-body experience where you feel like someone is shoving you against a wall, and you don’t know where to go or what to do.”

Catching It Quickly

After telling his parents and some colleagues — he was set to appear in a Broadway show but had to back out last minute for treatment — Bergen scheduled his surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

Before he went on the operating table, “My doctor said, ‘You caught this early. It hadn’t spread. You’re going to be fine. If you had waited two more months or a month, this could be a very different situation,’ ” the actor recalls.

Bergen says the surgery itself was a breeze — “I was up walking around at home that night”— and went back to work after two weeks of recovery.

But it was too soon, he says. “When you go through what my body went through with the surgery, that’s a lot. I would go on auditions, and then I would have these massive breakdowns on the floor — intense headaches, where I convinced myself that I had a brain tumor. My doctor warned me about this: As soon as you have cancer, you think everything is cancer. I thought every single thing was a new end to my life. I didn’t give myself the recovery time that I needed.”

Courtesy Erich Bergen

Bergen also underwent preventative chemotherapy about six weeks after his surgery “because you can’t really see the detail from the lymph nodes,” or whether or not the cancer had spread.

“You are very humbled to sit in that room and look around and see what’s going on,” Bergen recalls of undergoing one round of chemo. “That, more than anything else, was life-changing. To sit there and get a needle in your arm and look around in the chair next to me and see that some of these people might not make it to next week … that made a huge impact on me.”

Bergen describes recovery from the chemotherapy as “just brutal,” adding that he lost his appetite, along with 15 lbs., and experienced more panic attacks, headaches and nausea as a result of the treatment. “You put this poison in your body, and you know there’s a reason why they have to do it, and there’s a good reason for it.”

Courtesy Erich Bergen

How Jersey Boys Brought Him Out of His Depression

About a month after his chemo treatment, Bergen was still experiencing panic attacks.

“I was in the gutter, depressed,” he says.

But things started to turn around when the actor, who had previously worked on a Las Vegas stage production of the musical Jersey Boys, got cast in Clint Eastwood‘s film adaptation.

“We started production, and I was still having these breakdowns,” he says. “There was a little bit of nerve damage from the chemo. I had never been in so much pain,” he says.

But Bergen poured his life back into his passion. “I went back to work with something that I loved and knew that I was supposed to be doing,” he says. “I was able to take the focus off, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m dying,’ and put it into the work and put it into something I love. Jersey Boys started my career, and Jersey Boys restarted my career. The show has been very good to me, especially the second time around.”

Keith Bernstein

Ready to Make a Difference

Bergen admits he was initially hesitant to open up about his diagnosis.

“I was reluctant to talk about it because I was starting my career as an adult in Hollywood. I thought, ‘Do I really want to talk about the fact that I had testicular cancer? Is that really what I want to go out there with?’ ” he says.

But over time, his perspective changed.

“You start to realize you have a different purpose,” Bergen says. “You come out on the other side with this whole new appreciation for life. You really only get to live once — and when you are punched in the face with that reality? I took it and ran with it.”

Today, the star hopes men who find themselves in similar situations won’t let embarrassment deter them from seeking medical treatment.

“Men are dying because they don’t want someone looking at their junk,” he says.

“I think guys are so afraid of when you go to the doctor, like, ‘Is it going to be a woman nurse?’ All those stupid things that men tend to say and do regarding their bodies, the next generation has got to learn not to do that — because not being embarrassed about your body will save your life.”

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