A Conversation with Oscar-Winner and Two-Time Cancer Survivor Kathy Bates

A Conversation with Oscar-Winner and Two-Time Cancer Survivor Kathy Bates Photo © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

by Jessica Webb Errickson

From Broadway to the big screen, veteran actress Kathy Bates has captivated audiences and critics alike with her genre-defying talent. Though she didn’t star in a hit movie until age 42, the old saying “good things come to those who wait” rang true for Kathy, as her portrayal of hammer-wielding psychopath Annie Wilkes in the 1990 film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery garnered critical acclaim, winning Kathy an Oscar for Best Actress. Since rocketing into the spotlight, she’s racked up a mile-long list of acting credits, including lead and supporting roles in Fried Green Tomatoes, Dolores Claiborne, Titanic, and Midnight in Paris, as well as the NBC television drama Harry’s Law and the hit FX series American Horror Story, to name only a few.

For an A-list celebrity of Kathy’s caliber, privacy is hard to come by. Walk past any magazine stand and you’ll see cover after cover splashed with stories focusing in on stars’ personal lives. Cue the media’s collective surprise when Kathy revealed in 2009 that she had silently fought ovarian cancer – more than five years earlier. 

Having just signed on to appear in the movie Little Black Book, Kathy somehow managed to avoid media attention as she endured a complete hysterectomy and nine rounds of chemotherapy. Only the people closest to her knew her secret. But several years later, a fellow cancer survivor inspired the actress to come clean about her experience. 

“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,” Kathy recalls. “I realized it wasn’t necessary to hide. Nobody should be ashamed to have cancer.” 

With this revelation in mind, when a CT scan in 2012 revealed a tumor in her left breast and something suspicious in the right, Kathy didn’t hold back, boldly announcing via Twitter that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was recovering from a double mastectomy.

I realized it wasn’t necessary to hide. Nobody should be ashamed to have cancer.

Cancer-free and working hard as ever, having recently wrapped filming for the movie Boychoir (due out later this year) and signed on for the next installment of American Horror Story, the two-time survivor candidly shares with Coping magazine the details of her cancer journey and offers a message of comfort and support for her fellow cancer survivors.

Coping magazine: Emotionally, what were some of the more difficult things you had to face going through treatment and during recovery?

Kathy Bates: After my hysterectomy, I went to work on a film as soon as I got out of the hospital. I was lucky that I had someone to do my makeup and hair every day. But when the shoot was over, I had to do that myself. I’m not much on wearing makeup anyway, so that was a real chore, especially when I was feeling weak. I was so pale, and I had no eyebrows. It sounds like a silly thing, but I had to work at looking good so I could feel good about going out in public. After the first couple rounds of chemo, I began to feel very tired, so I stopped working and just focused on getting well. 

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With breast cancer, it was a much more emotional experience for me. My TV show [Harry’s Law] got cancelled because our audience was “too old,” and then my breasts got cancelled. I felt old and unwanted. 

kathy bates cancer
Kathy Bates in character as the evil Madame Delphine LaLaurie on the FX series American Horror Story: Coven (Photo © Michele K. Short/FX).

When my oncologist called with the news that I had breast cancer, I didn’t miss a beat. I said, “Take ‘em both off.” 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. 

Have you experienced any lasting side effects?

My surgeon removed quite a few lymph nodes under my arms, but thankfully I only have mild lymphedema. While you’re dealing with the cancer, that’s what you’re focused on, so lymphedema often isn’t talked about until well after surgery, and sometimes not at all. People with lymphedema can be frightened to discover that they will have to deal with this condition for the rest of their lives. I still require treatment for the lymphedema to keep my arms from swelling. Dr. Emily Iker of the Lymphedema Center in Santa Monica, CA, has been treating me regularly. I also need to wear compression sleeves on airplanes, and sometimes I wear them while driving long distances. 

How has being a two-time cancer survivor affected your career?

You know, it doesn’t come up a lot. On American Horror Story last year, we were doing a trick shot through my right arm and my waist, focusing on my hands. There was a shadow on the side of the frame, and it turned out to be my “breast.” I said to the director, “Look, I can take this out. It isn’t real.” He was a bit embarrassed, but I assured him it wasn’t a problem. I went to a corner, pulled out the prosthesis, and we got the shot. 

On the red carpet recently, someone asked me if I could have any magical power, what would it be. When I said I wanted to have the power to cure cancer, the interviewer’s mike dropped about a foot, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the camera sag on the cameraman’s shoulder. It just made me laugh. Nobody likes to talk about cancer. 

What one good thing has come from your cancer experience?

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. 

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What advice would you give to people recently diagnosed with cancer?

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. But stay off the Internet at night worrying. Rest instead. Be good to yourself. 

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. 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.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2014.