Kathy Bates is a top Hollywood talent celebrated for her performances in Misery, American Horror Story, Titanic, Fried Green Tomatoes, Midnight in Paris, and more. Her extensive body of work has spanned decades and made her one of the more decorated women in Hollywood. She has earned an Oscar, two Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and two Primetime Emmy Awards to date. As if this weren’t remarkable enough, Bates reached these outstanding Hollywood heights while battling cancer, not once but twice. First fighting ovarian cancer in 2003 and later beating breast cancer in 2012, the actor is now sharing what she’s learned from her harrowing health experiences. Read on to learn more about her back-to-back cancer battles, and to find out the one thing Bates says never to do when it comes to your health.
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Bates says that 2012 was already off to a rough start before she received her breast cancer diagnosis. She had just faced a disappointing career setback when her NBC series, Harry’s Law, was canceled from the air. Then she noticed her first clear symptom: an inexplicable pain in her abdomen. “That past Christmas, just before we were canceled, I had been really exhausted,” Bates told WebMD in 2017. “But I just chalked it up to all the work on the show, and I let months go by,” she added. Having already overcome ovarian cancer in 2003, she knew she needed to follow up with a doctor as her symptoms worsened. A series of exams and screenings from her oncologist ultimately revealed that the actor had stage II breast cancer.
She knew immediately that she would opt for a double mastectomy. “When my oncologist called with the news that I had breast cancer, I didn’t miss a beat. I said, ‘Take ’em both off,'” she told Coping with Cancer Magazine in 2014. “I then spent two weeks looking at all my options to make an informed rather than an emotional decision, but I decided to go with my instincts. I had seen my mother and my niece, who both had breast cancer, go through it with one breast removed. They always seemed to struggle with posture and brassieres. I didn’t want to worry about getting cancer in the other breast. I wanted to be free,” she said.
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Back in 2003, Bates kept her ovarian cancer diagnosis private at the urging of her agent, who feared she would be stigmatized in Hollywood. By the time she developed breast cancer nine years later, her attitude had shifted significantly. “Seeing [breast cancer survivor] Melissa Etheridge in concert with her bald head, wailing on her electric guitar, she was a force to be reckoned with,” Bates told Coping. “I realized it wasn’t necessary to hide. Nobody should be ashamed to have cancer.”
Bates has taken the same fearless approach when it comes to her double mastectomy, often opting to “go flat” without prosthetics and eschewing reconstructive surgery. “I recently had an opportunity to have breast reconstruction, but at the last minute I decided I was feeling so good that I didn’t want to go back to surgery, to bed rest, to being on pain medication. I realized that I already had what I wanted most, which was to be happy, have energy, work, be with friends, and live life,” she told the magazine.
Today, Bates is cancer free but lives with lymphedema, a painful chronic condition which affects 30 percent of patients who have undergone breast cancer treatment. Immediately following her surgery, which included not only the removal of her breasts but also 22 lymph nodes, she noticed swelling in her arms and pain in her hands—two tell-tale signs of the condition.
She admits that her initial reaction upon learning of her lymphedema was one of deep anger, especially since she had watched her mother contend with the condition following her own cancer treatment. “I was mad as hell. I think it was the culmination of having been through cancer twice and realizing that now I’d have this condition, this life-long souvenir,” Bates told the medical site Practical Pain Management (PPM).
Though there is no cure for lymphedema, the actor now works hard to manage her symptoms. “I had to have my arms put into these pneumatic sleeves that feel like a boa constrictor,” she told PPM. “One arm at a time, two times a week. Now I’ve lost quite a bit of weight, and that has helped considerably, but I still have to be careful. I can’t have a lot of salt or alcohol, I have to stay out of the heat, and I’m not supposed to pick up heavy things.” She has also become a spokesperson for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN), which works to educate others about lymphedema.
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When it comes to cancer treatment, Bates says a positive attitude and becoming informed can make a world of difference. “It’s no picnic, but it’s not necessarily a death sentence either. Go through the initial panic, and when that dies down, focus. Listen to your doctors, and ask questions; the more you know, the better,” she told Coping.
However, she also shares one warning for anyone experiencing a medical crisis: “Stay off the internet at night worrying. Rest instead. Be good to yourself,” she advised.
For Bates, this meant focusing on a healthier future, and finding joy where she could. “Use your chemo time to visualize yourself becoming healthy, no matter how silly the fantasy may seem. The rest of the time, try not to dwell on cancer,” she suggested. “You are not your cancer. It doesn’t define you. You can decide who you want to be. On the positive side, cancer can be a wake-up call. Take the opportunity to enjoy life and be a kinder person. You’re still at the party, so have a good time until last call.”
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