Going Strong

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The dialogue was vintage Three's Company: "How come their butts are all stuck together? "But this time Suzanne Somers was playing the role of Grandma, not jiggle queen Chrissy Snow. After stumbling upon a cluster of mating bugs during a recent afternoon hike with her 8-year-old grandson, Somers found herself giving him an impromptu birds-and-bees lesson. "He asked," she shrugs. "You got to tell 'em."

It's a mantra that has worked astoundingly well for Somers over the years. She has been open about her diet (her latest book, Suzanne Somers' Fast and Easy, debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list in January) and her battle with breast cancer (she's still healthy more than two years later). But now Somers, 56, is baring her soul like never before. This September she plans to tour the country with her one-woman musical show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. After leaying Three's Company over a nasty contract dispute in 1981 and being ignored by Hollywood studios for nearly a decade, "I always thought what was missing was not getting those movie roles," she says. "But this show is why I was born."

In the 90-minute Blonde—the title refers to her breakthrough part in 1973's American Graffiti—Somers touches on her abusive father, motherhood at 19 and her affair with then-married Alan Hamel (now her manager and husband of 25 years). "It tears my guts out," says Somers. "It took me weeks to do it without sobbing through it, and yet there are parts that are so funny."

While Somers says Three's Company is "hardly" in her act, the '70s sitcom is about to loom large in her life again when NBC airs Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Three's Company on May 12. Somers doesn't expect to come off well in the movie, on which costar Joyce DeWitt served as a consultant. "They are going to portray me as I'm not," she says, adding that DeWitt, from whom she has been estranged since '81, tried contacting her twice last year. "Joyce doesn't have a clue who I am."

Counters DeWitt: "I hope she will understand that this is not my story and that this is the story the executive producers had chosen to tell." Somers says she will watch the show at some point, even though "it's probably going to be a painful experience for me."

To be certain, Somers has experienced enough pain, after having a malignant tumor removed from her right breast in 2000. She's now cancer-free, despite her controversial decision to reject recommended chemotherapy in favor of treatment with Iscador, a type of mistletoe. "I knew if I took chemotherapy, it would completely blow out my hormones that I worked so hard to balance," says Somers, who studied hormones while researching her books. "I'm not the poster child for breast cancer, because I didn't follow the rules." Last month she received a clean bill of health from USC Professor of Surgery Melvin D. Silverstein. "She's perfectly fine," says Silverstein, who has treated her for three years. Adds Somers: "I really believe I am going to win this one."

Financially she's already a winner. Her businesses—which include 10 books, ThighMaster fitness products, Home Shopping Network collections of jewelry and beauty products, and the "Somersize" food line (named for her high-protein, high-fat, low-sugar, low-carb diet)—are thriving. "She does the show, and I do the business," says husband Hamel, 66, who claims "nine-figure" earnings. "I am standing in her shadow, but I've elected to be there."

But rather than count her money, Somers is getting back to work. She's writing her 11th book, about natural hormones, but takes time out from Blonde rehearsals for hikes with Hamel near their adobe-style Palm Springs, Calif., home and quality time with her family (including Somers's son Bruce, 37, from a teenage marriage; Hamel's two kids from a previous marriage; and the couple's five grandchildren). "I've decided that the blessing of cancer is that I am going to live my life every day," she says. "Every day is great, because now I know the thought of 'I may not have tomorrow.' That's a blessing."

Jason Lynch
Rachel Biermann in Palm Springs

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