Remembering ‘Golden Girls’ Star Bea Arthur Who Died at 86 from Lung Cancer; Learn the Importance of Screening

Published Mar 23, 2021

Marisa Sullivan

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  • Golden Girls and Maude star Bea Arthur died from lung cancer—peacefully and surrounded by family at her Los Angeles home—at 86 years old in 2009.
  • The Broadway actress was famously introverted, and her son Matthew Saks, 59, gave some insight in recent years on his late mother’s private demeanor.
  • Lung cancer can affect past and present smokers, and even people who never smoked. A leading expert tells SurvivorNet that you should get your lungs screened, even if you smoked in the past.

Anyone who grew up watching the Golden Girls on TV had their favorite character.

For many that was Dorothy Zbornak, played by the late Bea Arthur.

Arthur as Zbornak provided most of the show’s razor-sharp zinger lines as she half-sternly and half-affectionately called out her on-screen roommates’ ridiculousness in the show’s memorable scenes.

The unforgettable actress died in 2009, peacefully and surrounded by family at her Los Angeles home, after a battle with lung cancer.

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“She was a brilliant and witty woman,” Arthur’s personal assistant, Dan Watt, said when he announced the tragic news. “Bea will always have a special place in my heart.”

The classic show’s only living star is Betty White (the lovably ditzy Rose Nylund on the show), who is still going strong at 99 years old. Estelle Getty, who played Arthur’s Sicilian, wise-cracking mother, Sophia Petrillo, on the show, died in 2008 at 84 of natural causes; she had suffered from dementia. Rue McClanahan, the frisky Southern Belle “Blanche,” died in 2010 at 76 years old of a stroke.

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The show debuted in 1985 and lasted for seven seasons, not to mention years in syndication. Now, like most classic sitcoms, Golden Girls is available to stream.



Arthur grew up on Broadway in New York City, and had a full life of stage and TV credits. She’s a Tony Award winner and a two-time Emmy winner. She won the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for her work on Golden Girls and Maude.

Arthur’s reps never shared details about her cancer fight, which is respectable, as every person is different and handles cancer in their own way. Many stars of earlier generations were more private about their personal lives and their health battles.

“My mother had close relationships with a few close friends. She wasn’t a loner. But she really liked sitting around and chilling, as people say,” Arthur’s son Matthew Saks, 59, said in an interview with Fox News in 2019. “She would wake up in the morning, have a coffee and read the LA Times and The New York Times. That was fun for her.”

Saks spoke of the well-reported tension between Arthur and her co-stars, specifically Betty White. “You know, I’m always being asked the question if my mom hated Betty White,” he said. “It’s not the way it is. I think my mom had some problems with her, but she liked her.”

Arthur is survived by another son, Daniel Saks, 56. Both boys were adopted by Arthur and the late Gene Saks, whom Arthur was married to from 1950-1968. She was married to the late screenwriter Robert Allan Arthur for three years prior to marrying Saks.

Getting Screened for Lung Cancer

It is unknown whether Arthur was a smoker (although she did smoke in a scene in Maude), but regardless, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer.

Dr. Patrick Forde, director of thoracic oncology research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says getting screened early is a must.

Related: If You Smoke a Pack a Day, Lung Cancer Screening Should Start at Age 50 & Be Free, Say New Federal Recommendations

“Over the last few years, there’s been a number of studies looking at using low dose CT scans of the chest in patients who have a history of smoking to try and pick up lung cancers in earlier stage,” Dr. Forde tell SurvivorNet. “About 70% to 80% of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, unfortunately, the cancer has spread outside of the lung and is not suitable for surgery.” So, in other words, if you’re a smoker, go get checked.

Former & Current Heavy Smokers Should Get Lung Cancer Screenings Using CT Scan

Treatment for Advanced Stage Lung Cancer

Stage 4 lung cancer means that cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones, brain or liver. This is considered advanced lung cancer, but there are more types of treatment available for stage 4 lung cancer today than ever before. These include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as well as the newer targeted drugs and immunotherapy agents.

“Stage 4 is a difficult diagnosis for people to get,” Dr. Raja Flores, chairman of the department of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SurvivorNet. “It’s very important to take things step by step. So usually, with stage 4, it’s chemotherapy. And I never take surgery off the table, because down the line, after four or five years, someone may have had chemotherapy, which got rid of some bone disease, radiation that got rid of brain disease, and they may have one spot in their lung. And that’s the only thing that’s active right now. So even in a stage 4 patient, surgery may be a treatment possibility—most of the time it’s not. And so when you have a stage 4 patient, it’s important to make sure that they understand that chemotherapy is something that they have to look at, but it’s not the only option.”

Treatment for Stage Four Lung Cancer

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