Fifteen years ago, actress Kathy Bates was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer and immediately underwent surgery followed by nine difficult months of chemotherapy. She went right back to work following the operation, struggling through the exhaustion and telling no one.
Afraid of ending or damaging her career, Bates had been warned by her agent and by her physician’s husband who also worked in the business that revealing her cancer diagnosis would be detrimental.
When a second diagnosis of breast cancer followed in 2012, the cancer survivor knew that she would not stay silent.
“I saw Melissa Etheridge doing a concert and just wailing on her guitar with her bald head,” she told WebMD, “and I thought, ‘Wow, I wanna be her!’ So, when the breast cancer diagnosis came, I knew I wanted to be honest about it.”
With a long family history of breast cancer, the highly acclaimed actress from films such as Titanic, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Misery opted to have a double mastectomy after her diagnosis and has proudly opted to not wear breast protheses.
“I don’t have breasts – so why do I have to pretend like I do? That stuff isn’t important. I’m just grateful to have been born at a time when the research made it possible for me to survive. I feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.”
On a personal mission to raise awareness and funds for cancer research, the Emmy-winning actress joined other A-list stars such as SU2C co-founder Katie Couric, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, and Stevie Wonder in the Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) telecast on September 7. As of September 11, Stand Up to Cancer had raised over $123 million from this year’s telecast, the tenth of its kind. Groundbreaking work done by SU2C’s researchers has led to the FDA approval of five new cancer treatments, so far.
The one-hour event can be viewed here:
Currently cancer-free, Bates is now facing a new battle: lymphedema, a disease without a cure causing extreme swelling and pain commonly following the removal of lymph nodes during cancer treatment. When Bates learned that 10 million people in the US alone struggle with this disease, her passion for advocacy grew.
As a national spokeswoman for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network and a public advocate, Bates is mentored by Dr. Stanley Rockson, the Allan and Tina Neil professor of lymphatic research and medicine at Stanford University.
Rockson states that prevention and early detection are equally as important to finding a cure. “If you’ve had one sentinel node removed, you have about a 6% lifetime risk of developing lymphedema,” he says. “That risk goes up about 15% if you’ve had more than one removed – and it continues to increase based on how many nodes have been taken.”
Bates had 19 lymph nodes removed.
As with any diagnosis, education is power. Genetic testing can locate mutations in the BRCA genes which are often associated with breast cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, knowing whether or not your disease is hereditary will be important information for your sisters, daughters, nieces, and cousins to have.
For more information on lymphedema, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or the genes associated with the hereditary passing of these diseases, speak to your family doctor, oncologist, or a genetic counselor.
You can locate a genetic counselor through the National Society of Genetic Counselors www.nsgc.org. You can also find support for women and families with hereditary breast or ovarian cancer through FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) at www.facingourrisk.org.
Have you ever received genetic testing? Do you know the signs and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancer? What do you think about Bates’ decision to speak out? Please join the conversation.