Two years after discovering a “9-by-12-inch” cancerous tumor in his stomach and contracting a severe case of COVID-19, Jeff Bridges talks about what he went through during that time and how he’s been doing in recovery.
The Big Lebowski star, 73, sat down with AARP Magazine to discuss how his health has been since his struggles started in January 2021.
“I’m 73 now, so I guess I qualify [as an old man],” he said about his perspective on aging. “It turns out there’s a bunch of us old codgers there: me, John Lithgow  — and Joel Grey  trumps us all. With us guys, anyway, if we’re lucky, we are all old men, finally.”
With becoming an “old man”, Jeff has experienced the sad reality of deteriorating health that comes with aging.
He recalled the first time he felt the tumor in his stomach while on break from his FX series, The Old Man, and he told his wife of 46 years, Susan Geston, about it.
“I was doing some exercises while on the ground and felt what seemed like a bone in my stomach,” he remembered. “I thought to myself, Hmm. But it didn’t hurt or anything. I asked Sue what she thought. She said: ‘I don’t know, but you’ve got to get it checked out.’”
Very hesitant to go to a doctor, Jeff convinced himself that he was fine and that nothing was wrong. So, he and Sue decided to go for a hike where Jeff experienced itchy shins and night sweats, both of which he wrote off as things not to worry about. Come to find out, both dry skin and night sweats are symptoms of lymphoma.
Bridges then decided that it was finally time to visit the doctor who informed him of the tumor in his stomach. After learning of the news, filming for his show had paused and he began chemotherapy. But his struggles would continue as a letter from his doctor revealed he had contracted something else that was going to be tough to fight off with a weak immune system.
“I got this letter from the chemo place informing me I had contracted COVID,” he recalled. “I had no immune system to fight it. Chemo had wiped that out, which made it really, really tough.”
“For me,” he added, “cancer was nothing compared to the COVID.”
Jeff then became immersed in the idea that he could possibly be dying and instead of giving up, he entered “surrender mode”.
“I’d say to myself, ‘Everybody dies, and this is me dying,’” he admitted. “And I’d hear myself go, ‘Oh, well, here we are, onto the next adventure.’”
As an actor and creative type, Jeff turned to his fictional characters and what their traits would be in his type of situation to help motivate him to move forward, specifically, his CIA agent character on The Old Man.
Thinking back on the teachings from former CIA senior operations officer, Christopher Huttleston, who helped bring Bridges character to life, he remembered a quote that he learned that stated “the obstacle is the way”.
“For me, in that hospital bed, the obstacle was death,” he said. “And that was the way. I kept thinking, Here’s the problem, you know? Here’s the challenge. I asked myself, ‘How are you going to go about it?’ And I thought, I’m a dancer, man, and I’m a musician. I’m going to jam with this situation, you know?”
Bridges also turned to love to help get him through such a dark time.
“What I really felt at the time was love. Love was certainly magnified for me during this time,” he declared. “Not only from the people around me, but also the love in my own heart for them. So what I did was more like giving in to love, you know?”
From there on, he had an immense support system between his doctors and his wife, Sue, who he referred to as an “absolute champion”.
Now, he says his tumor has shrunk to “the size of a marble” and that he focuses on the “small goals” of recovering as he prepares to film season 2 of The Old Man.
“A lot of getting better was a matter of setting really small goals. At first they’d say, ‘How long can you stand?’ For a while, my record was 45 seconds before I’d collapse. And then they were saying: ‘Oh, look, you’re standing for a minute! That’s so cool, now can you walk 5 feet?’”
His attitude is much more hopeful now, calling his recovery a “gift”.
“So at first I said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ But eventually that became, ‘Maybe I can,’” he admits proudly. “I have to admit that I was still frightened of going back to work. Then I began to think of my recovery as a gift being presented.”