Sticking together through sickness and in health is something Jeff Bridges and wife Susan have done throughout their marriage. But the happy couple, who celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary on June 5, recently faced their biggest health crisis yet when Jeff was diagnosed with cancer and then got COVID while in chemo.
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the couple opens up for the first time about the harrowing year and a half when Bridges, 72, was sick. The Oscar winner, who is now in remission, survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system) and nearly died of COVID.
Susan says that after they received the devastating news that he had cancer, "we were kind of numb. We just immediately went through the steps of doing what needed to be done." The actor began chemotherapy by infusion, followed by oral chemo. Everything seemed to be working and the tumor in his body began to shrink.
"They got a cocktail that worked, and oh man, it worked fast. The thing just imploded," says Bridges.
But in January of 2021, a month after he had begun chemo, Bridges got a notice informing him that he may have been exposed to COVID-19 at the treatment center. He soon tested positive (the vaccine wasn't yet available) and the virus hit him hard since the chemo had weakened his immune system. "I had no defenses. That's what chemo does — it strips you of all your immune system. I had nothing to fight it," he says. "COVID made my cancer look like nothing."
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For Susan, seeing her husband in pain was heartbreaking. "We didn't know if he would recover," she says. She recalls getting a call from the hospital that they may have to put him on a ventilator. "I said, 'Save his life. No matter what you have to do.' "
In the end, the medical team was able to keep Bridges off the ventilator, but the actor says, "I was pretty close to dying. The doctors kept telling me, 'Jeff, you've got to fight. You're not fighting.' I was in surrender mode. I was ready to go. I was dancing with my mortality."
Today, Bridges is grateful to be alive and back at work. The star of films such as The Big Lebowski, True Grit and Crazy Heart will next be starring in the drama The Old Man on FX on June 16. He says after his health battle, he's treasuring life's simple pleasures even more, especially spending time with Susan.
"We don't have to do much. Just being in the same vicinity feels wonderful," he says.
The couple love spending time with their three daughters, three grandkids and puppy Monty, and are excited for what the future will bring. "It's all like a bad dream now," Susan says of the year and a half Jeff was sick. "And now's the good dream part."
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Jeff Bridges on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.