Kathy Bates is getting real about her battle with breast cancer and subsequently dealing with a little-known condition called lymphedema.
The 69-year-old actress recently opened up to WebMD about getting diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2012, after having already survived ovarian cancer in 2003. Bates underwent a double mastectomy, and also suffers from lymphedema — a collection of fluid that causes swelling in the arms and legs — that can occur when lymph nodes are removed or damaged after cancer surgery. Bates says she began noticing the swelling shortly after the mastectomy, and that her mother suffered from the condition as well.
“My mother had had a radical mastectomy — they took everything — and her arm swelled terribly,” Bates shares. “She was always a very smart dresser and wore very nice clothes, and after the surgery, she couldn’t fit into them anymore. It was a real slide into her feeling ‘less than.’ And so I remember getting hysterical when, even in the hospital, I noticed strange pains in my hands and then discovered that my arms were swelling.”
There’s no cure for lymphedema, but Bates undergoes physical therapy and says that losing weight has helped considerably with the symptoms. She also stays out of the heat and restricts her salt and alcohol intake.
These days, Bates is outspoken about the condition, becoming the national spokeswoman for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN), and also meeting with members of Congress. As for her double mastectomy, Bates says that if she doesn’t have to wear her breast prostheses for a role, she doesn’t wear them.
“I’ve joined the ranks of women who are going flat, as they say,” she says. “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.”
She’s also happier going public about her breast cancer battle, which wasn’t the case when she was dealing with ovarian cancer more than a decade ago.
“Back in 2003, when I had ovarian cancer, my agent told me not to tell anyone about it,” she recalls. “Even my gynecologist, whose husband worked in the business, warned that I shouldn’t come out with it because of the stigma in Hollywood. So I was very careful. But then I saw Melissa Etheridge doing a concert and just wailing on her guitar with her bald head, and I thought, ‘Wow, I wanna be her!’ So when the breast cancer diagnosis came, I knew I wanted to be honest about it.”
In May, Olivia Newton-John announced that she was postponing her June tour dates after her breast cancer metastasized to the sacrum. Watch the video below to hear the singer talk about her cancer battle in her own words.