Shirley Temple Was Also a Cancer-Fighting Activist

02/11/2014 at 12:45 PM EST

Shirley Temple Was Also a Cancer-Fighting Activist
Shirley Temple Black
Shirley Temple was known around the world for having been a child star, but the actress also carved out another influential role for herself: outspoken cancer activist.

At 44, Temple found a lump in her breast. "I wasn't really worried," she told PEOPLE in a 1998 cover story. "I don't know why."

Then working as a special assistant to the chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, she postponed the biopsy and instead headed to the Soviet Union for six weeks of government talks.

After she finally underwent a biopsy, the news was not what she'd hoped for: The lump was malignant. Speaking frankly about her mastectomy, she said, "It was an amputation, and I faced it."

"It was a terrible shock," she told PEOPLE in another 1998 story.

Sharing her struggle publicly after her operation in 1972, she received more than 50,000 letters of support – and became one of the first high-profile women to speak openly about the disease.

"I felt pretty good before the operation, and I felt good afterward," she said. "I just lost a good friend in between."

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