'Hamilton' Star Javier Muñoz's Secret Cancer Battle: 'I Had Never Been More Scared in My Life'

Javier Muñoz opens up to PEOPLE about his silent struggle and the triumphant return to the hit Broadway show

Photo: Donald Traill/Invision for Hennessy/AP

Hamilton star Javier Muñoz has spoken for the first time about his battle with cancer – admitting: “I had never been more scared in my life.”

Muñoz, 40, who is the alternate for the musical’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, performs the title role of Alexander Hamilton once a week and has become a household name for theater fans.

He’s earned his own eponymous hashtag, #Javilton, and been titled “the Sexy Hamilton” by none other than Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic for The New York Times.

But behind the scenes of the Broadway sensation, Mu oz has been fighting cancer – only making his illness public after being forced to take several weeks off from Hamilton.

The decision to speak out about his illness marks a significant change in attitude for Muñoz, who, when first diagnosed, kept the news a secret from many people – including his parents, both of whom are cancer survivors.

“At first, I knew I needed to go through this myself,” Muñoz said. “I don’t know how to explain it other than saying everything felt like it was mine, and I needed to face this and I needed it to be on my terms. I was very I don’t want to say proud, because it wasn’t pride. It was looking at the mountain and thinking, ‘I can’t take anyone up this with me. I think I have to meet people on the way.’ No one can give me that fight. I had to find it in me.”

“I’m not someone who gets scared,” he continued, sharing that he has lived with numerous health problems since childhood and credits his physical challenges with his first introductions to music and art. “It’s a very rare occasion that I genuinely feel just fear. I can get anxious, apprehensive about things. It’s a rare thing in my life to find myself face to face with something I’m scared of, and I was scared of this. I had never been more scared in my life.”

Muñoz, who repeatedly described himself as a fighter, went into surgery with one of his three older brothers by his side before beginning radiation treatments. It was after the operation that he shared his diagnosis with his parents. While he said they weren’t happy to learn he had kept the news from them, his relationship with his family has deepened significantly since.

“My inclination, my instinct, my reaction to the fear I felt was solitude,” he said. “And that’s what I think was behind my silence and how long it took me to say anything to anyone. People in my life had no idea and I was doing my best to hide it.”

Even though no one has guilt-tripped or shamed Muñoz for how he chose to share the news of his diagnosis, he said he does feel guilty. But his relationship with his family is much closer now, thanks to a great deal of forgiveness.

“I look at all the positive on this side of things now that I’m through all the surgery and the treatments, and I’m strong and the weight has come back on my body and my endurance is back, and I regret that I was so silent.”

It was in his silence that Muñoz learned even more about his instinct to fight every battle that came his way. While he spent much of his time sleeping, reading science fiction and watching every one of the Star Wars movies again (he is a self-proclaimed sci-fi geek), he would also exercise his body in any way possible by lifting empty delivery bags or ice packs like they were hand-held weights, simply in order to prove that he could lift something.

And he deliberately celebrated every victory, no matter how small. If he could turn over in bed by himself when he couldn’t the day before, or if he could walk down the stairs when he was unable to the week before, he would celebrate – with the theme song from Rocky playing in his head.

Muñoz first returned to Hamilton on Jan. 17. Describing the three-hour, dance-intensive show that spans decades of the title character’s life as “a canyon,” he recalled thinking, “‘I’m never going to reach the other side.’ It looked impossible at the start. It was immense work to get through it.”

But his castmates helped him.

“I will never forget the energy of that cast,” he said emphatically, while recalling how, during the last number of the show, everyone already onstage made sure to smile or wink at him before he walked on.

Pausing briefly as his eyes filled with tears, Muñoz said, “I’m not supposed to cry in that moment. But I was so relieved and proud and moved and in love with every single person on that stage. I couldn’t hold it together. I was breathing heavy, not because I was tired, but because I was so emotional. I was trying to play the moment and trying to be true to the moment, but the emotions were really overwhelming. I ended up finally tearing and crying, but every single person on that stage had my back. I felt it.”

Looking back, Muñoz also said that his cancer battle helped his vision for himself come into sharper focus.

“Coming out of this, it’s sort of reinvigorated my passions,” he said. “If success comes with those things in some way – and everyone has their own definition of success – that’s great. But it s the art that s my goal. It s the work that s my goal. It s creating something wonderful.”

And creating something wonderful is exactly what Mu oz intends to do. “I’m not done,” he stressed. “There’s so much more to grow. There are so many irrational fears to overcome. And they are irrational, but they’re still fears, and that’s OK. I don t want to just maintain from this point forward. I want to excel. I’m already focused on what do I need to make myself happy? What’s the life I need to build for myself going forward that’s going to be the rest of my life? Where are my energies going to go? Now it’s got to be specific. I m not going to put my energy into something I’m not passionate about. Not after this. Not after everything I’ve been through I’ve got to care deeply about it, whatever it is.”

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