February 11, 2014 12:45 PM

Shirley Temple was known around the world for having been a child star, but the actress also carved out another influential role for herself: outspoken cancer activist.

At 44, Temple found a lump in her breast. “I wasn’t really worried,” she told PEOPLE in a 1998 cover story. “I don’t know why.”

Then working as a special assistant to the chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, she postponed the biopsy and instead headed to the Soviet Union for six weeks of government talks.

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After she finally underwent a biopsy, the news was not what she’d hoped for: The lump was malignant. Speaking frankly about her mastectomy, she said, “It was an amputation, and I faced it.”

“It was a terrible shock,” she told PEOPLE in another 1998 story.

Sharing her struggle publicly after her operation in 1972, she received more than 50,000 letters of support – and became one of the first high-profile women to speak openly about the disease.

“I felt pretty good before the operation, and I felt good afterward,” she said. “I just lost a good friend in between.”

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