Connie Britton pays a lot more attention when she goes grocery shopping these days. The Nashville star and four-time Emmy nominee says that losing both of her parents, in a painfully short period of time to different types of cancer, served as a major wake-up call about her own health.
Britton's mom, Linda Womack, a former music teacher, died of breast cancer in 2005, the year after Britton first appeared as football wife Sharon Gaines in the film version of Friday Night Lights. Three years later, as Britton was turning Tami Taylor into an American feminist icon via the Lights TV series, her dad, Allen, an energy-company executive, passed away from anemia related to myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In honor of her parents, Britton has donated her time to several breast cancer charities and served as Honorary National Walk Chair for the Aplastic Anemia & MDS International Foundation.
"It all got me really thinking about why we have cancer at what seems like almost epidemic proportions in our country, particularly breast cancer in women," says the 46-year-old Britton, who's also known for starring roles in Spin City and American Horror Story. "It makes me really think about living a life that is more actively healthful. I personally believe that there are a lot of things that we're dealing with environmentally -- in our food, in the things that we use every day -- that have chemical components that are not in our best interests, and I've started paying a lot more attention to that. I really think a lot about what I put into my body."
More research is needed to pinpoint how and why various chemicals and other factors in the environment and our diets may affect a disease as complicated as cancer. An April 2010 report from the President's Cancer Panel suggests that pollutants play a bigger role in cancer than scientists previously understood. The panel recommends that people take precautionary measures: filter water, avoid plastic containers (and never microwave them), and choose organic, antibiotic-free food, for examples -- all strategies Britton adopts.
"I want to know where the things I eat came from," she says. (Despite reports that she's a vegan, Britton says she does eat meat sometimes; her favorite meal is salmon and vegetables.) "Do I shop organic? I absolutely do. I really pay attention to the way things are manufactured. I'm not saying that any of these things, specific products or chemicals, cause these cancers, but I do think that living in a healthy way and feeling healthy perpetuates itself." She's also religious about getting regular mammograms and sonograms because her mother had breast cancer.
What You Should Know Myelodysplastic Syndrome
The disease that claimed the life of Britton's father is part of a group of precancerous conditions that happen when the cells of the body's bone marrow are damaged. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 12,000 cases of myelodysplastic syndrome are diagnosed every year, but experts say this estimate may be low. Typical MDS symptoms include fatigue and shortness of breath during physical activity. Martin Tallman, MD, chief of the Leukemia Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, points out more facts:
- The risk increases with age. MDS is rare in people under age 40, and most cases are diagnosed in people over 60.
- Smoking and workplace chemical exposure can increase your risk of developing MDS.
- If you've undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatment for another type of cancer, like breast or prostate cancer, your risk of developing MDS goes up.
- The FDA recently approved three drugs to treat MDS. Two, azacitidine (Vidaza) and decitabine (Dacogen), turn on tumor suppressor genes that are shut off in MDS. The third, lenalidomide (Revlimid), works only for MDS patients with a specific chromosomal issue.
Connie Britton on Motherhood
Bringing home her son, Eyob, now nearly 3, from Ethiopia in 2011 forced Britton to focus even more on the importance of a healthy life. "I'm his whole world," she says. "It really does weigh heavily on me. I've really committed myself to this person, and I'd better do a good job taking care of myself so that I can be healthy for him and live a good long life with my son."
Welcoming Eyob, nicknamed "Yoby," was bittersweet for Britton. Her mom had died shortly after Britton returned from her first trip to Ethiopia, traveling with a friend who was involved with orphanages in and around the country's capital city, Addis Ababa. Single since her marriage to John Britton dissolved in the mid-1990s, Britton had always thought she'd have children "someday." But the loss of her parents made her realize that someday had come, and her affinity for Ethiopia after that initial trip led her to choose African adoption. Today, she's the spokeswoman for the seven-nation African Children's Choir, which honored her at its ChangeMakers Gala this past November.
"It's a real bummer," she says of the fact that neither of her parents met their grandson. "I really wish that they could have known each other. It would have been so nice for him to have grandparents! And as a mom, now there are so many things I wish I could have asked them."
Many new moms who, like Britton, lost their own mothers years before having a child themselves may feel a fresh wave of grief when their child is born or they adopt. "Suddenly the new mother sees the world through the eyes of a mother and can identify with her mother in a way she couldn't before," says Hope Edelman, author of the bestseller Motherless Daughters and a follow-up book, Motherless Mothers, about the experience of becoming a mother when you don't have your own mom. "With that comes the sadness of knowing that the mother's not there to enjoy the child as their grandmother."
If you're in that position, be kind to yourself, Edelman advises. "Understand that this grieving is normal. And try to build your own network of experienced mothers you know who can give you that support you wish your mother could: your mother's sister, an older sister of your own, friends with older children. These connections can be very important."
Building Family for Yoby
Britton has worked to build a huge extended family for herself and Yoby. She's close to Cynthia, her fraternal twin sister, and a collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins. "Family has become very important to me. I really want him to feel a strong sense of that. And even the people I work with on Nashville, they've become part of our family too, for sure," she says.
Yoby's a fixture on the set of the show, where Britton plays ambitious country legend Rayna Jaymes (the role that recently earned her a fourth Emmy nom). "He loves to go to the hair and makeup trailer with me," she says. "Everybody dotes on him and does his hair, and then he goes on set and he'll sit with the director or one of the producers and he'll call ‘Rolling!' or ‘Action!'"
And he's a big fan of his mom's music. Britton had never played the show's CD for him, but Yoby frequently goes for play dates with the daughter of one of Britton's friends, and he heard the music there. (Britton and her son make their home in Nashville, where the show films.) Yoby and his pal became captivated by "Wrong Song," a duet Britton sings with co-star Hayden Panettiere.
"It's one of his favorite songs now," Britton laughs. "He'll just break into the ‘Wrong Song' at the top of his lungs, anytime, anywhere!"
Britton Stands Up for Pro-Choice
When she's not dolled up as Rayna for Nashville, you won't find Britton primping much, even though her famously crowd-stopping auburn mane boasts both its own (very unofficial) Tumblr site and Twitter feed. She has a simple beauty regimen, mostly pampering her skin with a line of organic face oils.
But other than that, "I do very little fussing over myself," she says. "Because when I'm not filming, that means I'm home with my son. I used to be on time for everything. Now I'm on time for nothing, because it takes so long to get him out of the house. If I don't have anything I need to do, I may not even look in the mirror! I may throw clothes on and focus on getting him together. People want to take pictures of me and I feel like, ‘Blah, I have to remember to put on makeup!'"
In that way, Britton says, she's a lot more like FNL's Tami than current character Rayna. "Even with my career, my life is a lot simpler than Rayna's life."
Britton made headlines earlier this year when she partnered with Planned Parenthood to support a campaign against abortion restrictions in Texas, where Friday Night Lights was set, with a special-edition T-shirt that read "WWTTD? What Would Tami Taylor Do?" She says her pro-choice stance hasn't garnered much criticism from her fans.
"I have been very lucky about that. We did an abortion story on Friday Night Lights that was so well done that people on both sides of the issue actually embraced and loved the episode," she says. "For me, I speak out about women having a choice and having options for excellent health care, and it's really about caring for all women, for all people. I want to have productive conversations about showing empathy for women. I can always hear anybody's point of view."
Becoming a single mom at 44 brought her own views on childbearing into sharper focus. "Listen, I am a single mom who has a great life. I am so fortunate," Britton says. "I have the resources to have help when I need it, but even so, it is still overwhelming and exhausting. And like it or not, if women don't have a right to choose about their body, they will have to take that on and the men can leave. No child should grow up with a mother who can't take care of him. There's really no woman who can spiritually survive being an ineffectual mother. We need to be able to mother our children."
Connie's Health and Beauty Secrets
At 46, Britton has hair, skin, and a body that women 10 years younger envy. What's her secret?
Know your body's needs. "I've developed bulging discs in my back, and so I have really had to find exercises for those kinds of injuries," Britton says. For her, that's Pilates and hot yoga.
Get back to nature. "I love walking and hiking and anything outside," says Britton. She's fallen in love with Nashville's parks, especially Radnor Lake, an oasis of trails and wildlife in the heart of the city.
Tweak your bad habits. "I tried to cut sugar out because if I have a little, I can't stop. I love chocolate so much!" She's found a brand of chocolate sweetened with beet sugar. "I really try to make that my treat. Technically that means I'm taking care of myself!"
Get your beauty sleep. "Sleep is probably the No. 1 thing we need to stay healthy," she says. "But listen, these days if I have a night where I get 7 hours' sleep, I feel like I'm doing a good job. If I had a day for myself, I'd take a nap!"
Know what you're putting in your body. "When I have the time, I make fresh fruit and vegetable juices," Britton says. "But when I can't do that, I try to find a juice place near work where I know the quality of the products they're using."