Actress Jennifer Grey took home the Mirrorball Trophy when she competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” but she also gained something more significant than that — she credits the show with saving her life.
Grey Was Involved in a Terrible Car Accident in 1987
In Ireland in 1987, Grey and her then-boyfriend, actor Matthew Broderick, were involved in a two-car, head-on collision that left the two women in the other car dead and left Broderick in the hospital for months with a broken femur and a collapsed lung. A Los Angeles Times article from 1987 identifies the women as Margaret Doherty, 67, and her daughter, Ann Gallagher, 28.
Grey seemingly escaped the crash with minor injuries — “the only evidence of injury visible to the eye was the small patch of skin on my chest, just below my neck, that had been burned off by the friction of the seat belt,” she writes in her 2022 memoir “Out of the Corner.”
She continues, “I was injured in ways they couldn’t asses at the time. I had soft tissue damage throughout my body. I’d suffered severe whiplash, which happens when the head is violent forced in one direction and then is whipped in the opposite direction, while the upper body is forcily held in place by the seat belt.”
But that soft tissue damage would affect her for the next 20 years. Fast-forward to 2009-2010 and Grey was hesitant to do “Dancing With the Stars” for several reasons, one of which was her chronic pain.
“Anyone who knew me knew that I regularly suffered from chronic neck pain and sometimes from blinding headaches that could last fordays. Only [her then-husband Clark Gregg] knew that I would sometimes wake up unable to feel my hands,” writes Grey in her chapter about “Dancing With the Stars.”
When she finally started considering going on the show, at her good friend and fellow actress Marlee Matlin’s urging — Matlin competed on season six — Gregg insisted she be checked out by a doctor to be cleared for the show and that’s what saved her life.
“The soft tissue that attaches my head to my body — got thrashed: overstretched, strained, and torn. Though I wouldn’t know it for another 22 years, a thrashed ligament capsule would eventually cause my head to fall forward and basically be hanging off my spine,” writes Grey of the lasting repercussions of the car accident.
Getting Checked Out For ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Helped Her Chronic Pain and Led to a Cancer Discovery
Prior to agreeing to go on “Dancing With the Stars,” Grey went to see Dr. Robert Bray. She knew Dr. Bray had treated “the first man on the moon turned ballroom dancer” Buzz Aldrin, who competed on season 10 of the show.
Dr. Bray was concerned about a nodule on her thyroid, which she had been assured was benign, so he said they’d come back to that. But he then told her she had “one of the worst necks I’ve ever seen.”
“If you’re dancing and you get jolted pretty good, not to mention if you were driving and got rear-ended, you’d be permanently paralyzed from the neck down. You’d be a rag doll,” writes Grey, describing her meeting with Dr. Bray.
When she asked if he was saying she couldn’t do “Dancing With the Stars,” he said, “No. You shouldn’t even be in a car, in my opinion.”
But Bray assured her that they could treat her and she could still compete on the show, without that much recovery time. He mentioned that he once performed an “emergency microdiscectomy” on professional dancer Karina Smirnoff just 17 days before the start of the show season.
So Grey underwent surgery to put in a metal plate and four screws in her neck and the pain was almost immediately better. She then had part of her thyroid removed on Dr. Bray’s advice and later, the pathology report came back saying it was cancerous.
“[It was] capsular follicular cancer, the kind that’s good at evading biopsies and can easily spread to other organs,” writes Grey.
So she then had a third surgery to remove the remaining part of her thyroid and shortly thereafter had a fourth surgery where Dr. Bray fixed the stenosis on two other levels in her neck. She figured since she was already recovering from her other surgeries, she might as well have the fourth procedure done. This was all in late 2009 and early 2010 and she asked Dr. Bray if she’d be recovered enough to compete on “Dancing With the Stars” in the fall.
He told her she could “probaby last a few weeks” on the show. Grey would go on to win the whole thing with her partner, Derek Hough.
She then writes, “Marlee Matlin is a mystic. I hadn’t yet agreed to do the show, and it had already changed my life. F***, it might have even saved my life.”
In an interview with USA Today about her book, Grey elaborated on that whole experience, saying that she was afraid to go on “Dancing With the Stars” partly because she was scared people would be “disappointed [she] wasn’t good enough or the girl from ‘Dirty Dancing’ who couldn’t learn fast enough,” but she is so grateful that she decided to do the show — for many reasons, not the least of which is that she may well have died from thyroid cancer if it was not for the show.
“From that experience, I found I had cancer and that I had had it for four and a half years, but the doctor who looked at my spine said not only should you not be in a car, you’re lucky you’re not paralyzed. Your head is hanging off your spine and this is why you’ve been in pain for 20 years. The fact is this reality show saved my life,” said Grey.
“If I hadn’t had a bad accident and hurt my neck, then they wouldn’t have found the thyroid mass,” she continued. “So in a way, the accident that I thought was maybe one of the worst things that happened to me saved my life.”
“Out of the Corner” is available now. “Dancing With the Stars” returns for season 31 in the fall of 2022 on Disney Plus.