Colleen Zenk Pinter by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/PGP
Last spring As the World Turns star Colleen Zenk Pinter was diagnosed with oral cancer. Now her character, the conniving Barbara Ryan, is about to meet the same fate. "I set up a meeting to pitch the idea to our executive producer, Chris Goutman, even though I wasn't sure I was emotionally ready to do such a story," says Pinter, 54. "We sat down and, before I could say anything, Chris pitched the same idea to me."

The actress, who underwent three surgeries and internal radiation treatment, is now cancer-free and eager to spread the word about this increasingly common, potentially deadly disease. "Like cervical cancer, oral cancer has now been linked to the HPV virus," says Pinter, noting that the website oralcancerfoundation.org was her lifesaver - literally. First doctors missed her cancer, then recommended the wrong surgery, prompting her to take charge, do her own research and get herself the proper care.

The bad news will hit Barbara on Jan. 2, the same day she's banned from the baptism of her grandchild. "She's all alone and desperate when she gets the diagnosis," Pinter says. "She ends up at the church after the christening, praying for help. Let me tell ya, that was a tough scene to get through."

How will this story play out? "Hard to tell because of the writers' strike," she says. "But I told Chris, 'This cancer can be a real killer, so don't let Barbara ignore it too long. I need my job!'" - Michael Logan