Photo credit: 2011 Warner Brothers
After battling ovarian cancer in 2003 and breast cancer in 2012, Academy Award winner Kathy Bates is opening up about her experience with the diseases. And she’s chosen Palm Beach as the first place she’ll publicly share her story.
The actress, whose decades-long film, television and Broadway career includes Oscar, Golden Globes and Emmy wins, will be the featured speaker at H.O.W. Hearing the Ovarian Cancer Whisper’s Time is of the Essence luncheon. The event will take place January 26 at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, and tickets cost $375 per person, $175 for guests 40 and younger.
Bates recently played Madame Delphine LaLaurie on FX Network’s American Horror Story and is largely recognized for her popular roles in the movies Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes, Dolores Claiborne and Titanic. Unknown to the public at the time, she underwent chemotherapy during filming for the 2004 movie Little Black Book and, while after the TV series Harry’s Law was canceled in 2012, had a double mastectomy. Today, she is cancer free.
“Cancer runs like a river in my family,” Bates says over the phone from Louisiana, during a break from filming American Horror Story. “A lot of women on my maternal side have had breast cancer. I always knew someday I would have it—I just didn’t know when.” (561-406-2109)
What do you remember about the first time you were diagnosed with cancer?
At the time, I was enrolled in French classes in the south of France. I was vacationing after doing a couple films there. Long story short, my best girlfriend came over for my birthday, and she pointed out I wasn’t looking well. I was sleeping an awful lot. It was very hot that summer, and it’s very hilly there. I was climbing up and down, and after a day of that, I thought, “I’ve got to go home.” I came home and got tested, and they found a tumor. They got me in right away, and then I embarked on a year of chemo.
After that, I was my numbers were great, and they have stayed great. I haven’t had any hiccups since then, other than a double mastectomy a couple years ago.
What stages of cancer did you have?
For ovarian, between one and three. The tumor was just beginning to invade the colon.
I don’t know what stage the breast cancer was. They caught it a little later than they would’ve liked. I was working [on Harry’s Law] at the time and always felt really, really tired, and I chalked it up to the show. A few months later, when the show was over, I went in for a checkup. To my great surprise, I had tumor in my left breast.
Did your colleagues know?
Makeup and hair had to know. I shaved my hair before it fell out. You just get somebody to put a wig and makeup on you.
What helped you stay positive through this experience?
My friends and family, of course. Sometimes, though, just letters from mothers of friends of mine who’d gone through it—unexpected information or well wishes from people I didn’t know. I realized I was becoming part of a network.
Also, my niece had gone through it, so I was able to talk to her about it. Our situations were very different. Hers was really easy for some reason. Mine was just horrific. I think one of the tubes they put in was pressing on a nerve, so it was difficult to manage the pain until I got that tube out.
Some cancer survivors talk about having two lives: one before cancer and one after. How is your life different now post-cancer?
The thing I wish I had known more about and that doctors don’t emphasize is: After they remove your lymph nodes, you’re likely to have lymphedema. That’s the swelling of the arms. It’s something I would like to raise awareness about, because women can feel like that’s an ugly souvenir they’ve been left with.
I have to wear compression sleeves on the plane now. I had mild lymphedema, so I was very lucky. My mother had it worse than I did. I didn’t want them to take more lymph nodes than they needed to. I have to go to the doctor at least monthly and do physical therapy.
How has it affected your life?
It’s sometimes more difficult to find jackets or shirts that fit. I shouldn’t really lift anything over about five to 10 pounds with that arm. I just need to take it easy with that arm. Driving sometimes is difficult, and I love to drive.
Why did you decide to start speaking about your fight with cancer now?
It’s really simple. I saw Melissa Etheridge while I was recovering from ovarian cancer, and she was recovering from breast cancer. She gave this amazing concert with a bald head and rocked all her acts. I thought, “That’s what it’s all about.”
I feel its silly to hide what we’re going through. It’s up to every individual, of course, to decide what to share, but I want to take the stigma away from dealing with a medical condition. When I went to dinner with people, they didn’t want to talk about cancer.
A lot of people are looking forward to seeing you at the luncheon. Have you been to Palm Beach before?
I’ve gotten to spend a few days here. I have a friend whose parents live in Boynton Beach. He’s my best friend in the world. Last year for Christmas, I lied and told him I was going to Los Angeles, but I drove down to stay at The Breakers. He thought family was going to be picking him up at airport. I went to the baggage claim, and he was overcome with excitement.
I’ve come through before on another trip as well. What a beautiful place.
What are you looking forward to about this visit?
I’m looking forward to speaking. I want to share my story in depth more than I’ve discussed today. I want to talk about the emotional underpinnings of going through cancer and share anecdotes of what I went through. Although, staying at The Breakers ain’t no bad thing, either.
Interview continues on page two.
What career projects are you working on?
I do have a couple indie movies circling. And I’m hoping to come back to season five of American Horror Story. But I’m thinking of taking time for myself. I’m really content.
I have to give thanks to [American Horror Story creator] Ryan Murphy. After Harry’s Law was canceled a couple years ago, that was exactly when I got my double mastectomy. It was like a double whammy, having to go through having a show canceled and not taking it personally when you’re the star. Then the breast cancer was very depressing. After that, I had a meeting with Ryan, and he pitched me one of the most glorious parts of television ever, and winning an Emmy for it was a dream come true. You always worry because the genre’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
Where do you store all your awards?
I have the Oscar in one room where I have watch TV. A lot are in the library. A couple are scattered around. It’s nice to be watching TV and then look over and see an Oscar or Emmy sitting there.
It seems like half the time, your roles are sweet, generous, caring characters, and the other half are psycho. You play both effortlessly. How?
Acting is really a more high-tech version of make-believe we have as kids. It’s playing dress-up. Going into a costume fitting is a really important part of building a character, because you see the character forming in front of your eyes. For my makeup this year, having a beard was a big deal. I did a film last spring called Great Gilly Hopkins, and I decided to modify my teeth a little bit. I wanted her to have teeth that hadn’t seen a dentist. So it’s playing make-believe with high-tech-tools.
Imagination—it’s really all about imagination for me. Over the years, as you get better at it, develop a technique. But it’s just imagination—that’s what it boils down to.
What’s been your favorite or most memorable role?
Dolores Claiborne [from Dolores Claiborne] would be my favorite. I got a chance to do all these things: play two different ages, use a dialect, change my appearance and my body. I worked with a movement coach to learn how to move differently when I was younger and then older. I had a wonderful director and a great cast.
What else would you like to achieve before you die?
I would love to raise awareness for lymphedema. I want to do more talks about ovarian and breast cancer to help women get help sooner.
I went to an event last weekend for a nonprofit called Special Needs Network, run by Areva Martin. Over the last nine years, she has lobbied for care for autistic children in neighborhoods with underserved medical help, like here in South Central Louisiana. They were raising money to build an autism center on the campus at Martin Luther King [Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles]. I was presenting an award to Angela Bassett that night. After hearing Areva speak about children and meeting children who had gotten help early enough, I was really inspired.
The problem is: In neighborhoods that are marginal and don’t receive care they need, too many years go by before a kid can get the help he or she needs. When they do get help, they can have a life their parents—who are having such a difficult time not knowing how and where to help—couldn’t even imagine. I was very inspired. I’m thinking would like to become more involved with it.
It dovetails with my experience with cancer, because I of course got the best treatment. Since I was hiding away, they gave me a private room. One of the shots they gave me cost $4,000. One shot. I’m not stupid. I know not everybody is getting this level of care. I would like to be involved in any organization that is trying to get everybody the level of care that I had. They all deserve it. I’d do anything to spread awareness.
Also, another issue I’m very passionate about is reading. Two-thirds of kids in schools here are not reading at grade level—60 percent. In Detroit, it’s 90 percent. My best friend works for Scholastic. They are doing everything they can to get parents and teachers to try to turn this around. It’s so difficult.
They discovered with early childhood development, reading begins between ages 0 and 5. If you sit with your child from as early as being an infant and play and read with them while holding them in your lap, they begin to associate reading with comfort and love. It’s a good experience for them. What also helps is letting a child pick their own books, even in school. It doesn’t matter what it is.
I’d also like to be able to retire at some point and pick and choose what projects to work on, but I would like to continue speaking. Oddly enough, right before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was at [Memorial] Sloan Kettering [Cancer Center] talking about ovarian cancer and how lucky I was, and the next day diagnosed. But I really loved speaking there and got the bug. I can use my celebrity status to help.
What’s your New Year’s resolution?
To spend more time with people I love. I spend so much time on the road working, I don’t have time with them. I have close friends who live in New York, and I live in Los Angeles. Life is going by very quickly, and we’re spending it working instead of together. My goal is to change that.