“It was a mess,” she tells PEOPLE. “I think it was messy mostly because I had a great fear of not being able to have kids. I’ve always been very maternal, I’ve always loved children and I’ve always wanted one of my own, and so having that not being option, especially at such a young age — kids were very much not on my mind at 25, but I still wanted them one day — it was really hard and it was a really depressing thing to go through.”
The Avengers and former How I Met Your Mother star, 36, had a “great” oncologist who helped her through the process, but in 2007, there just were not enough resources out there to help.
“I remember doing mad, crazy Google searches on my disease and trying to understand it better, and obviously I was talking to my doctors, but there wasn’t at the time and it was very bleak,” she says.
Smulders went into control mode, and tried everything under the sun to get her body back to health, from cutting out cheese and carbohydrates to yoga classes, acupuncture, crystal healers and more.
Thankfully, her surgeon was able to save enough of her ovaries — just one-third — for her to have two kids (“it was very small but mighty, apparently,” she says) and she has been in remission for nearly a decade.
Smulders resisted talking about her cancer for years, until she revealed her battle in a 2015 issue of Women’s Health.
“For me at the time, I just wanted to deal with it on my own and with my family,” she says now. “I wasn’t interested in sharing it with anybody. It doesn’t really benefit the world until now, when I can say, ‘this is what I went through and I survived it. These are the things I did and these are the things I learned and these are the things I can show you.’ Before it just felt like something I want to deal with myself.”
But Smulders was glad she talked about it, and found that women would approach her and say that they were thankful to her for speaking openly about a cancer that often goes undiscussed. And now, she’s teaming up with Tesaro for their Not on My Watch campaign, which urges women who have had advanced ovarian cancer to look into maintenance treatments.
“There’s a statistic that 85 percent of women who had advanced ovarian cancer had a recurrence, and when you’re faced against those odds it’s a very terrifying place to be in,” she says. “I think for those women, it’s a great opportunity to have treatment options that weren’t available to me when I was going through my own cancer. It’s kind of a new day of more options and more awareness, and a place and a time where you can get more answers.”
Tesaro will donate $5 to ovarian cancer patient organizations each time Smulders’ PSA is shared.
In Smulders’ case, her ovarian cancer was not advanced, but she goes for regular checkups, and makes sure to eat well and exercise.
“I’m not healthy all the time — nobody is — but it’s good to be in this world of conversation because it reengages me with my healthy habits because you can’t reach them if you don’t actually do them,” she says. “I do take good care of myself, and now that I’m a mom I really have to.”
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Reflecting on the last 11 years, Smulders says she’s in awe of what her body has done, going from ovarian cancer to carrying two children to getting in action-hero shape for Avengers and Jack Reacher.
“I’m very impressed with my body, and I don’t give it enough credit,” she says. “I think we as women, for a variety of reasons, look at our bodies from an outsider’s perspective. I think that we need to start relishing our bodies a little bit more and work on being grateful for them. I’m very grateful for my body because it beat cancer, and it made two children. And it’s ran next to Tom Cruise for miles and miles and miles, and that alone is such a huge feat. That’s magic.”