Kathy Bates credits her best friend, Jennifer, with saving her life. On a 2003 trip to Europe, the Oscar-winning actor’s friend told her, “You don’t look right.”
“I’d known her for nearly 40 years, and I figured I’d better pay attention,” Bates says. An ultrasound revealed a mass that turned out to be ovarian cancer.
Bates survived her cancer and was back at work within a couple of weeks. But less than a decade later, she faced another diagnosis. This time it was breast cancer. Both her mother and aunt had had the disease, and her aunt had died from it.
A double mastectomy rid her of the cancer, but the removal of 19 lymph nodes left her with a painful complication called lymphedema. “My arms swelled to almost twice their size. I could only wear men’s shirts,” Bates says.
Her experience led her to become a spokesperson for the Lymphatic Education &
Research Network (LERN), an organization that promotes lymphedema awareness and research. With LERN, she has pushed to educate the medical community about lymphedema and pressed for legislation to ensure that hospitals inform patients about the risks before they undergo surgery.
“My ultimate goal is to educate the entire medical community,” she says. “This has been a huge uphill climb for all of us. It’s not over. I feel like we’re just getting to base camp.”
She’s also signed on as an executive producer of the HBO documentary Rx Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee, which follows the former Food Network host’s path to diagnosis and treatment. “This is our way to honor the women who have died, and to say thank you for surviving,” Bates says.