It was supposed to be a dream come true.

In 2003, after filming a couple of movies in Europe, Kathy Bates went to study French at a school in Villefranche— something she’d wanted to do her entire life. But something wasn’t right. She felt exhausted, her skin was flushed, and even more alarming, she was experiencing menstrual spotting and was unable to properly insert a tampon.

“I just thought I was tired from the shooting,” she says.

A grim diagnosis

On advice from her best friend, she decided to return to the states and visit her doctor. This just might’ve saved her life, as an ultrasound revealed an aggressive tumor. It was ovarian cancer.

“Going through an experience like cancer sharpens your focus and makes you realize that you have to look after yourself. It focuses your attention on the relationships that are important to you in life. You learn to sweat the small stuff.”

“I had had an exam six months before this and everything was fine,” she says.

In that time a tumor had grown to the size of a baseball and had begun to attach to her colon. If it had spread any further, her chance of surviving another five years would have dwindled to 25 percent. She needed surgery immediately.

A life of gratitude

Yet eight years later, Bates is healthy and the star of Harry’s Law on NBC. The Academy Award winner silently endured nine rounds of chemotherapy before the cancer went into total remission. 

“What I’m going through doesn’t define me as a person; I define myself.”

Now, she’s living a cancer-free life. “Going through an experience like cancer sharpens your focus and makes you realize that you have to look after yourself,” she says. “It focuses your attention on the relationships that are important to you in life. You learn to sweat the small stuff.”

Though initially she was quiet about her illness, she’s now ready to advocate on behalf of other women suffering from ovarian cancer.

“At the time I was very conscious, and part of it was being in the industry that I’m in. Ovarian is the cancer that women don’t want to talk about.” Her advice to women with the disease is to embrace who they are, despite any taboo that comes along with diseases of a sexual nature. If she were to experience it all again, she says she’d be proud and open, and she wouldn’t try to hide her baldness.

She says: “What I’m going through doesn’t define me as a person; I define myself.”