For Actress Embeth Davidtz, Being Diagnosed With HER2 Positive Breast Cancer Was ‘A Very Lucky Thing.’ Here’s Why.

In writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest everything-is-not-the-way-it-seems big screen blockbuster, Old, resort goers find themselves on a day trip from hell when they realize they are aging one year for every half hour on an island beach excursion.

While the premise for Old would be a real life horror show for most, actress Embeth Davidtz, who plays Adult Maddox in the film, has a more nuanced reaction. Davidtz, an 8 ½ year breast cancer survivor, admits she finds it “shocking” to see how old she looks in the film but at the same time she’s cognizant that looking old beats never getting old. In other words, death.

“I’m not Pollyanna-ish,” says the South African-raised Davidtz, about her post-cancer diagnosis attitude.  Yet, at the same time, she acknowledges her changed outlook on life. “[Cancer] taught me to see things through another lens. I have a different way of looking at things,” the 56-year-old mother of two explains.

Embeth Davidtz arrives at the American Cinematheque Awards Gala in 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

She is reminded of an incident which occurred before her “reframing” was complete. “The year that I was sick my little guy [Asher, now 15 ] was in first grade. I was bald, my hair had started to grow back, I had fuzz. We walked by a group of children and one said, ‘That woman is bald.’  Asher asked Davidtz, ‘Why does so much bad stuff happen to us?’ I said ‘Yeah, we were unlucky because I got sick but lucky we could fix it.’”

It was 2013, when she discovered “a very hard and very large something” on her breast in between mammograms. Test results soon revealed Davidtz — known for her roles in Schindler’s List and Matilda — had an aggressive form of breast cancer. “It was so shocking in the immediate days before you knew what you were dealing with,” she recalls.  “At first the news was really dire. It was a really large tumor, 3 ½ cm. The outlook felt really bad. I was 47, with HER2 triple-positive breast cancer.”

Her outlook brightened, however, when she learned that being triple-positive  — in which the tumor cells have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and a larger than normal number of HER2 receptors on their surface — offered her access to newer targeted treatments. “By the time I was diagnosed, Herceptin was invented,” she explains. “It turned out to be a positive thing that [the cancer] grew so quickly, HER2 positive turned out to be a very lucky thing.”

Davidtz’s Treatment Path: ‘I Didn’t Trust Them Anymore’

Davidtz had a double mastectomy as well as the drug therapy. Her thinking: “I don’t want to deal with my breasts ever again. I didn’t trust them anymore.”

Even without them, there’s still annual blood tests for cancer/tumor markers to detect any cancer activity in her body. “It sort of feels like a tap on the shoulder, some speck of something behind you,” she explains of the transition from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor. “I feel it occasionally while I’m waiting for [yearly test results] for the most part.”

On her still must do list is a follow up with her surgeon. “I didn’t realize until the other day that if you had reconstruction surgery you need to do MRIs after about 5 years to check that the implants are intact,” she explains. “At some point I should do that. I don’t relish the idea but I’ll check [with the surgeon] to see if it’s something I have to do.”

In addition to her own health, Davidtz was initially concerned about her children’s potential cancer risk. It wasn’t her mother’s breast cancer which she describes as “a completely different thing caused by massive hormone replacement therapy” which was treated with a lumpectomy, it was the revelation new to her that her mother-in-law [who had ovarian cancer] had the BRCA gene. A subsequent BRCA gene test given to her husband, Jason Sloane, showed he carried it as well.

”I seldom prayed as hard as I did for the blood tests of both of my children to be negative,” she remembers. “All I thought about was that I don’t want my daughter to have to prophylactically do anything.”

Back to Acting

Thankfully, the tests for both were negative. With a different outcome, Davidtz had already decided she wouldn’t tell Charlotte, now 19,  until she turned 25. “It would have changed the trajectory of her life. I was so relieved.”

Davidtz knows this first hand because even at her age, she felt her life course shift. At first, she wasn’t sure she’d ever go back to acting. “Initially I thought I didn’t want to work. I don’t want to be on a hot set. I don’t want to waste my life doing that. I want to be home with my animals, with my kids making dinner.  As the kids got older,  they would say things like ‘What do you do all day?’ I felt like I had to justify my experience.”

She began slowly taking acting jobs again.  “Doing (director M. Night Shyamalan’s) thing,  working on something else in Berlin. I started thinking, ‘You know I kind of like working again.’”

Davidtz was also motivated to become a resource for others in their cancer journey. “Sometimes I think I’m being a know-it-all. I feel like I’m being pushy when I’m giving my cup of soup [but] take it or leave it these are the things that helped me,” she explains. “I  really want to share things, to make people feel better,” like urging IV fluids after chemo which made a difference in her own recovery.

And then there are the closer contacts who through her openness with her own story inspired them to pay more attention, including two friends who subsequently self diagnosed and credit Davidtz for their newfound vigilance.

In the Hollywood world, Davidtz thinks “people don’t talk about” their cancer surgery because of a concern of ‘Will I still be sexy, attractive?’  For her it was the opposite. “It did not impact my own sense of self. In some ways I felt more attractive because I was tough.”

Her “state of grace” as she calls her changed perspective was also strengthened when during her own treatment a good friend with brain cancer was not as “fortunate” and died.

“I felt so lucky I’d been given a second chance,” says Davidtz. “I can only put it this way: I didn’t set out to do it [but] for me because the  outcome of mine was so positive. I’m always aware of the other side of the penny.”

Learn more about SurvivorNet’s rigorous medical review process.


Gayle Jo Carter is a reporter/writer/editor/booker who has contributed to a diverse array of media outlets. Read More

In writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest everything-is-not-the-way-it-seems big screen blockbuster, Old, resort goers find themselves on a day trip from hell when they realize they are aging one year for every half hour on an island beach excursion.

While the premise for Old would be a real life horror show for most, actress Embeth Davidtz, who plays Adult Maddox in the film, has a more nuanced reaction. Davidtz, an 8 ½ year breast cancer survivor, admits she finds it “shocking” to see how old she looks in the film but at the same time she’s cognizant that looking old beats never getting old. In other words, death.

Read More

“I’m not Pollyanna-ish,” says the South African-raised Davidtz, about her post-cancer diagnosis attitude.  Yet, at the same time, she acknowledges her changed outlook on life. “[Cancer] taught me to see things through another lens. I have a different way of looking at things,” the 56-year-old mother of two explains.

Embeth Davidtz arrives at the American Cinematheque Awards Gala in 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

She is reminded of an incident which occurred before her “reframing” was complete. “The year that I was sick my little guy [Asher, now 15 ] was in first grade. I was bald, my hair had started to grow back, I had fuzz. We walked by a group of children and one said, ‘That woman is bald.’  Asher asked Davidtz, ‘Why does so much bad stuff happen to us?’ I said ‘Yeah, we were unlucky because I got sick but lucky we could fix it.’”

It was 2013, when she discovered “a very hard and very large something” on her breast in between mammograms. Test results soon revealed Davidtz — known for her roles in Schindler’s List and Matilda — had an aggressive form of breast cancer. “It was so shocking in the immediate days before you knew what you were dealing with,” she recalls.  “At first the news was really dire. It was a really large tumor, 3 ½ cm. The outlook felt really bad. I was 47, with HER2 triple-positive breast cancer.”

Her outlook brightened, however, when she learned that being triple-positive  — in which the tumor cells have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and a larger than normal number of HER2 receptors on their surface — offered her access to newer targeted treatments. “By the time I was diagnosed, Herceptin was invented,” she explains. “It turned out to be a positive thing that [the cancer] grew so quickly, HER2 positive turned out to be a very lucky thing.”

Davidtz’s Treatment Path: ‘I Didn’t Trust Them Anymore’

Davidtz had a double mastectomy as well as the drug therapy. Her thinking: “I don’t want to deal with my breasts ever again. I didn’t trust them anymore.”

Even without them, there’s still annual blood tests for cancer/tumor markers to detect any cancer activity in her body. “It sort of feels like a tap on the shoulder, some speck of something behind you,” she explains of the transition from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor. “I feel it occasionally while I’m waiting for [yearly test results] for the most part.”

On her still must do list is a follow up with her surgeon. “I didn’t realize until the other day that if you had reconstruction surgery you need to do MRIs after about 5 years to check that the implants are intact,” she explains. “At some point I should do that. I don’t relish the idea but I’ll check [with the surgeon] to see if it’s something I have to do.”

In addition to her own health, Davidtz was initially concerned about her children’s potential cancer risk. It wasn’t her mother’s breast cancer which she describes as “a completely different thing caused by massive hormone replacement therapy” which was treated with a lumpectomy, it was the revelation new to her that her mother-in-law [who had ovarian cancer] had the BRCA gene. A subsequent BRCA gene test given to her husband, Jason Sloane, showed he carried it as well.

”I seldom prayed as hard as I did for the blood tests of both of my children to be negative,” she remembers. “All I thought about was that I don’t want my daughter to have to prophylactically do anything.”

Back to Acting

Thankfully, the tests for both were negative. With a different outcome, Davidtz had already decided she wouldn’t tell Charlotte, now 19,  until she turned 25. “It would have changed the trajectory of her life. I was so relieved.”

Davidtz knows this first hand because even at her age, she felt her life course shift. At first, she wasn’t sure she’d ever go back to acting. “Initially I thought I didn’t want to work. I don’t want to be on a hot set. I don’t want to waste my life doing that. I want to be home with my animals, with my kids making dinner.  As the kids got older,  they would say things like ‘What do you do all day?’ I felt like I had to justify my experience.”

She began slowly taking acting jobs again.  “Doing (director M. Night Shyamalan’s) thing,  working on something else in Berlin. I started thinking, ‘You know I kind of like working again.’”

Davidtz was also motivated to become a resource for others in their cancer journey. “Sometimes I think I’m being a know-it-all. I feel like I’m being pushy when I’m giving my cup of soup [but] take it or leave it these are the things that helped me,” she explains. “I  really want to share things, to make people feel better,” like urging IV fluids after chemo which made a difference in her own recovery.

And then there are the closer contacts who through her openness with her own story inspired them to pay more attention, including two friends who subsequently self diagnosed and credit Davidtz for their newfound vigilance.

In the Hollywood world, Davidtz thinks “people don’t talk about” their cancer surgery because of a concern of ‘Will I still be sexy, attractive?’  For her it was the opposite. “It did not impact my own sense of self. In some ways I felt more attractive because I was tough.”

Her “state of grace” as she calls her changed perspective was also strengthened when during her own treatment a good friend with brain cancer was not as “fortunate” and died.

“I felt so lucky I’d been given a second chance,” says Davidtz. “I can only put it this way: I didn’t set out to do it [but] for me because the  outcome of mine was so positive. I’m always aware of the other side of the penny.”

Learn more about SurvivorNet’s rigorous medical review process.


Gayle Jo Carter is a reporter/writer/editor/booker who has contributed to a diverse array of media outlets. Read More

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