Even before she entered the Big Brother House, Marissa Jaret Winokur has been a fighter! Shortly after the mother-of-one survived the chopping block on the reality competition show, she sat down with fellow house guest Mark McGrath and opened up to him about being a cervical cancer survivor. Marissa was diagnosed with cancer when she was only 27, and opted not to tell anyone because she feared for her career.

“In 2000, I was living in LA, going back and forth to New York, working with the Hairspray producers, but they hadn’t given me the part yet,” she previously recalled to People. “I was back in LA when my gynecologist’s office called. My routine Pap smear was ‘off’ and I had to have a biopsy. A few days later, I was in my apartment when I got the call. I was in shock, but my family and friends rallied around me. Within days, part of my cervix was removed. I went back to New York feeling awful. I couldn’t tell anyone at work because they still weren’t sure I was right [for Hairspray]. I wasn’t going to give them a reason not to give me the part.”

She went on to explain that her sister made her padded leotards, as she had lost significant weight, but didn’t want to be turned down for the leading role of Tracy Turnblad. She later snagged the role, and her performance in it earned her a Tony Award, but keeping her battle a secret was no small task.

After having a hysterectomy, Marissa eventually got a clean bill of health — but she remains a strong cancer advocate to this day. In her personal essay about her diagnosis, she encouraged young women to get the HPV vaccine to help lower their chances of getting cervical cancer.

“When I was sick, all I wanted was to get well. I never asked about the cause, except to check if it ran in my family,” she wrote. “I learned about a year ago that HPV, a common virus, causes cervical cancer. Now, there is an HPV test that might have caught my precancerous cells earlier. There’s a vaccine, which can be given to women before they’re sexually active. It makes sense to take these precautions. I’ll encourage my friends’ teenage daughters to get vaccinated.”