Sheetal Sheth Persevering

Seema Staff

Growing up in New Jersey as a first-generation child of immigrant parents from Gujarat, Sheetal Sheth studied widely in school. She also danced, played basketball, and other sports. But acting was her calling. “I had never felt a connection to something in the way that I did with theater,” she says. “I’ve always loved people and exploring the many nuanced facets of our complicated selves, but the opportunity of sharing someone’s story became a singular focus for me in a way that I hadn’t felt before.”

This connection led Sheth to numerous roles in movies and TV, from indies to mainstream and back again (among them Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, I Can’t Think Straight, The World Unseen, Stalemate, Three Veils, The Wisdom Tree, Nip/Tuck, Royal Pains, and NCIS: Los Angeles). She was often singled out for awards, and she landed campaigns with brands like Reebok, as well as serving with AmeriCorps and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I don’t do anything I don’t want to do,” declares Sheth. And she’s endured plenty of pressure as an Indian American actress. “I started my career in the late ’90s, when I was still battling producers about why I wouldn’t change my name. There were so few of us. There was no social media. There were no 24-hour news cycles or diversity initiatives. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of support. So many of the films I was a part of were ‘firsts,’ whether in theme, character, narrative, or simply in representation. . . . I would even get flak for being in a sex scene in a film because people just hadn’t seen a lead who looked like me do that before. Different communities were aghast about different things. Truth is, we have come a long way, but we have galaxies to go still.”

Sheth’s journey took an unexpected turn in late December 2018, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a double mastectomy in January 2019, she spent several months in chemotherapy, which caused hair loss, among other difficult side effects. Sheth was private about her diagnosis for quite some time. But in June, her birthday serendipitously fell on the six-month anniversary of her diagnosis, and she felt it was time to speak up. Sheth posted a wigless photo on Instagram to share her battle with cancer, adding “It has been shattering and surreal to say the least. It rips you raw. But here I am. Full of grief and gratitude. And still at it. Persevering.”

The response from fans, friends, and family has been an outpouring of love and support. Sheth paid special attention to her relationship with her kids. “Going through this when you have small children heightens things in another way,” she says. “Of course your mortality is top of mind. Sometimes I don’t wear a wig just to show them it doesn’t matter, that hair doesn’t define who you are, or make you attractive. Even if I would’ve preferred to wear it. I’m still processing it, but my kids have questions now, and I want to be honest and appropriate with them. They have been my foundation in so many ways, and I’m so grateful for my family. When a child’s parent has an illness, it becomes part of their narrative. How we define this now, is how it will live in their lives.”

Sheth isn’t shy about sharing her buzz cut look, and she embraced the opportunity to appear wigless in SEEMA—and on the cover. “I think we, especially Indian women, tie a lot of value to our hair. We need to be celebrating all kinds of women and femininity. Putting someone who looks like I do now on the cover means a great deal.”

Sheth is conscious of all she’s been doing before her diagnosis, and all she has yet to do. In addition to her movies and TV roles, she has also worked as a producer and has been on a book tour for her widely successful and critically praised children’s book, Always Anjali (about a seven-year-old girl who learns to embrace who she is). Her latest feature film, Hummingbird, which she also produced, is in post-production now. She has continued participating in advancing progressive social causes with groups like Equality Now and the Representation Project, and she’s always looking for more to embrace and uplift.

Meanwhile, she’s also getting right back into the swing of picking out her next creative projects, from her own ideas or those of collaborators. “I am always looking for ways to explore myself and to stay challenged and open,” says Sheth. “Sometimes that comes from my own creations and sometimes, I am sent something. I love both. There’s nothing like getting a script that surprises you!”