Kathy Bates’ Secret Struggle

Actress Kathy Bates reveals why she hid her battle with ovarian cancer—and how the disease turned out to be the best thing that ever happened.   

Deborah Pike Olsen
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While it’s hard enough to battle cancer with the support of everyone you know, it’s even more difficult when you’re a Hollywood star and have to keep your diagnosis a secret. “I was advised to [do so],” says Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, 64, who fought ovarian cancer in 2003 and managed to keep it under wraps until 2009.

“I was contracted to go into a movie [Little Black Book] at that time…I was very quiet about it and had to go back to work right away.” The actress, who is known for her roles in the TV series Harry’s Law, as well as the films Fried Green Tomatoes, Titanic and Misery, eventually decided to go public because she wanted to help others. “I’ve decided to share my story…because early detection is the key in this kind of cancer,” she has said. “Paying attention to certain symptoms…saved my life.”

Kathy was in a hotel room in Berlin when she first noticed worrisome symptoms. “I didn’t feel nauseous, but I…spit up like a baby,” she said in a public service announcement for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. “I was really surprised. It was out of nowhere, and I thought, Something is wrong.”

She also had trouble eating, and she experienced vaginal bleeding. “I tried to use a tampon, but it was very difficult to get it into my body,” she recalls. “[In retrospect], I think that’s because the tumor was there. I turned on a dime, got on a plane and came home.” Kathy’s gynecologist ran tests, and she said, “Oh, I can’t find your ovary,” recalls Kathy. “And then she said, ‘Oh, I see a mass here.’ ”

“I think I started to shake from that moment on,” Kathy recalls. “I kept thinking how lucky I was that I was able to get there so fast and have the answers so fast. I kept thinking how frustrating it is when you can’t have the answers so quickly and you have to wait and wait.” Within two days, Kathy had surgery. She started chemotherapy immediately and underwent nine treatments. “I was very lucky…because my body held up well under all that chemo,” she recalls.

Yet it was difficult for her to get the right emotional support. “Nobody else really knows what you’re going through except another cancer patient,” she has said. “And even though your family is supportive and surrounds you, I got to the point where I would go to chemo by myself. I guess it’s something I felt I had to face on my own.”

While filming Little Black Book, Kathy wore a wig. “That was the easy part,” she recalls. “The hard part was when I didn’t go to work and I had to deal with putting my own makeup on and wearing a wig or tying a scarf on my head.” Now, though, Kathy wishes she’d gone bald. “I remember going to a disco one night with a friend who’d had cancer, and she said, ‘Just take your turban off and come dance.’ ”

A blessing in disguise
In remission for 10 years, Kathy has been busier than ever. She’s appeared in more than a dozen movies since her cancer battle, including Midnight in Paris, A Little Bit of Heaven and Valentine’s Day. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in the NBC drama Harry’s Law; and she’s currently filming The Great Gilly Hopkins and Boychoir, both due out in 2014. In five years, she hopes to be “working at top pace like this,” she has said.

If Kathy experiences a relapse, she won’t be silent about it. “If I had to go through it again, I’d probably be a lot more open,” she has said. “I admire people who have been open like Melissa Etheridge and women I see walking around and facing it without wigs. I would be more courageous next time.”

Looking back, Kathy says her diagnosis was a blessing in disguise. “The whole experience was the best thing that ever happened to me because it…made me focus on what was important to me,” she says. “And I wanted to live and enjoy what life was left to me…I feel grateful to have the opportunity to continue working, to have relationships with friends, to travel, to have a good relationship with my family. All the things that we begin to take for granted in our daily lives.”

3 ways to live longer—and healthier
Kathy has learned the following lessons from her cancer experience:

Pay attention to any unusual symptoms. “We all know ourselves better than anybody else,” she says. “If something is off and you don’t look right or your color isn’t right and if you’re having trouble eating or you’re feeling unusually bloated or your pants don’t fit right, whatever it is…go to the doctor. It’s better to err on the side of caution than be too late to do anything about it.”

Adopt a healthy lifestyle. “I’ve tried to eat better,” Kathy has said. “I try to get more exercise. It’s not always easy…but I do the best I can.” Kathy’s role on Harry’s Law helped her torch calories: “Harry’s Law had a huge set, and I was on my feet walking all day…in the courtroom we [were] always on our feet making closing arguments and cross-examinations,” she has said. “I found it to be a really good workout.”

Keep your weight in check. “Don’t let your weight get out of control,” Kathy has said. “Once that happens, you go on diets and you get on a yo-yo effect with your weight. That’s the one health problem I have fought all my life, and I wish I had been able to get a handle on it when I was younger.” Kathy made a simple diet change: “I cut [sodas] out of my diet. It’s so easy to reach for the caffeine and sugar when you’re at work.”

That’s a good idea, since a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who drank just one serving of soda a day gained more weight than those who drank fewer than one a month. They also had a more than 80% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

January 2014