Susan Lucci on Her 2 Heart Procedures: 'I Didn't Realize How Close I Came to a Fatal Heart Attack'

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24: Susan Lucci attends the 49th Daytime Emmy Awards at Pasadena Convention Center on June 24, 2022 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24: Susan Lucci attends the 49th Daytime Emmy Awards at Pasadena Convention Center on June 24, 2022 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Amy Sussman/Getty

Susan Lucci wasn't the only one shocked when chest pains first put her in the ER four years ago.

"My friends' husbands looked at me and said, 'We know what you eat. You order kale. We smoke and drink scotch. What about us?' And they got tested!" the daytime TV legend, 76, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. That's the reaction she hopes her story gets — especially from other women. "I would hear that heart disease is the number one killer of women, but that went in one ear and out the other," says Lucci, who's now an ambassador for the American Heart Association. "But now I get it."

Heart health, she learned, isn't always easy to see or to predict. "Even my cardiologist said that to look at me, you'd never think I was a heart patient," she says.

When the Emmy-winning soap star, who played Erica Kane on All My Children for 41 years, first experienced symptoms in October 2018 — including intense chest pressure "like an elephant pressing down" and pain around her rib cage — she ignored them. With a daily routine of pilates and a mostly Mediterranean diet, it didn't seem possible that she could be having heart trouble. "And like most women I thought, 'I have too much to do. It will go away.' I didn't want to bother the cardiologist," she says. "We take care of our children, we are advocates for our loved ones, but we're not at the top of our own to-do list.

A scan revealed a 90% blockage in the main artery to her heart: "I didn't realize how close I came to a fatal heart attack." Her condition turned out to be genetic ("hereditary from my dad's side") and doctors put in two stents. "It's important for everyone to know their family history," Lucci says. "I don't think that I ever mentioned my dad's family history to a doctor."

Last January (after indulging in lots of "comfort food" during the pandemic —"not my normal way of eating," she says), Lucci had another scare. She began feeling short of breath and experiencing chest and then jaw pain. Despite her previous procedure, she was again reluctant to call a doctor. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "And after telling women for three years to not be afraid to call the doctor and to put themselves on their to-do list, I reverted back to all those things."

They discovered an 80 percent artery blockage (this time caused by cholesterol) and inserted another stent.

"I almost wasn't going to speak about it, I was so ashamed of myself. But it's a reminder to be vigilant," says Lucci, who's just designed a new "Empower Your Heart" jewelry collection to support the AHA (25% of the sales will go toward the organization). The heart-themed pendants are "reminders for women to listen to their bodies," she says.

She's also been promoting the effort by Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin to encourage people to learn CPR. "I didn't need it because I didn't have a heart attack, but many people aren't as lucky as I was and they will," Lucci says. "What I learned is that women are far less likely to receive CPR." (According to the AHA, only 39 percent of women received CPR from bystanders in public compared to 45 percent of men — because rescuers often fear being accused of inappropriate touching.)

Two months after her own last operation, Lucci lost her husband of 53 years, Helmut Huber, when he died at age 84. "After that, nothing seemed important, my health or anything else," Lucci says. "I didn't care about anything else."

Actress Susan Lucci and her husband, Helmut Huber
Actress Susan Lucci and her husband, Helmut Huber

Steve Zak Photography/Getty Susan Lucci and husband Helmut Huber in 2017.

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Healing has been "a process, a journey," she says. But today, "I feel good. I lost the love of my life and that's been awful, but I have friends who make me laugh and keep me out and about, and I'm determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other."

With additional reporting by Mary Park