Diahann Carroll admired first lady Betty Ford’s decision to go public with her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1974.

Her openness “gave us the means to turn victims into survivors,” the 81-year-old, Tony Award-winning actress said, speaking at Spectrum Health’s Candid Conversations event Wednesday, Oct. 19. “That means was her voice. Most of us were afraid.”

Sixteen years later, Carroll was stunned to hear that she, too, had breast cancer. And as much as she admired the first lady’s openness, Carroll struggled with whether to share her cancer journey with the world.

“I was in show business,” said Carroll, whose credits include starring roles in the TV shows “Dynasty” and “Julia.” “In my profession what it’s all about is glamour. You can’t imagine how many low-cut gowns I had hanging in my closet when I found out I had breast cancer.”

Also, she said, she was raised “not to make my private life my public life.”

Ultimately, she decided to share her experience in hopes of helping others.

She visited patients and families in hospitals, discussed her cancer battle in television interviews and allowed Connie Chung to bring a camera crew into the room when she had radiation treatments.

Carroll delivered the keynote speech at the annual Candid Conversations event sponsored by Spectrum Health Cancer Center and Betty Ford Breast Care Services at the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School.

She promoted early detection, encouraging the audience to get checkups and mammograms.

She recalled that she almost postponed her annual physical in 1998 because it was a stressful and busy time. But then a mammogram detected a shadow in her breast and a biopsy revealed cancer.

“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘You are very fortunate,’” she said. “We found this early. It is less than a centimeter.”

Having cancer helped her simplify her priorities, she added. She focused on getting well and staying well.

Carroll spoke about her gratitude, as a survivor, to enjoy time with her daughter and her two grandchildren.

“I am just so happy I have been allowed to hang around for that,” she said.

And she spoke about the progress made in detecting and defeating breast cancer.

“It’s a blessing to know the survival rate of breast cancer patients continues to rise,” she said.