How Brenda Song Took Control When Her Mom Was First Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

Most 16-year-olds are preoccupied with getting their learners permit, excited for their first real taste of independence. Unfortunately, actor Brenda Song wasn’t so lucky. As a teenager, the former Suite Life of Zack & Cody star had her world turned upside down when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer — being the first of three times. “When my mom had cancer, it was no longer an after school activity. It became my career,” the 28-year-old tells me at 2016’s Stand Up To Cancer telecast in Los Angeles. Song’s mom, also her “best friend,” was by her side at the event, clearly kicking cancer’s butt. But it wasn’t always easy. Song opens up about the horrifying realities of having a loved one with cancer, and why she didn’t let those realities intimidate her.

The actor, who’s on the promotion trail for CBS’s upcoming show Pure Genius , took time to be a part of SUTC to help and to be heard. “Spreading the word is the one thing we can really do. Knowledge is power for me,” she explains. Her mom is a three-time breast cancer survivor, and she lost her grandpa last year to nasopharyngeal cancer. She admits cancer was terrifying to her at first, until she learned to take it into her own hands.

“To me, cancer was a scary six-letter word in the dictionary,” she says. “It’s like cancer equals death. That’s all we think about, that’s what society thinks [of] it as.” Even though Song was young when her mom was diagnosed, she found the idea of cancer to be less frightening by learning about it and being immersed in the process—taking control of the disease rather than the other way around.

“Throughout this whole experience, it was learning, getting on the internet, asking doctors questions, what kind of treatment, options, and it took away my fear,” says the actor. “The knowledge took away my fear because I felt somewhat in control.”

Although Song and her younger brothers had to step up to the plate and be strong for their mom, it was she who remained the glue of the family.

“In this time, my mom was the pillar in our family when I was down,” says Song. “It made me have to grow up.” Although the unexpected circumstance rocked Song to the core, she sees the positives in what she and her family endured during such a difficult time.

“I’m so grateful because it really brought my family so much closer. You’re forced to be communicative and to be so open and I feel like we’re closer now than ever,” Song explains. Although her mom’s battle enriched their family dynamic, it also affected Song on a personal level. “It really made me look at life very, very differently. We changed our diet, I really had to change my perspective on life,” she says.

At the event, Song seemed optimistic knowing there is knowledge, power, and help for families going through the same heartbreaking process—and all of these things are theirs for the taking.