If not for a close friend urging her to visit the doctor, Kathy Bates may not be here today. "She saved my life," recalls the star of "American Horror Story" of her diagnosis. She had been feeling flushed and tired, but chalked it up to work. "It would have been easy for me to write off all of those things if she hadn't been there."

Struck twice

Despite testing negative for the BRCA gene mutation—"I didn't feel that was a get out of jail free card," Bates says, noting her family history of cancer—the actress was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer nine years after surviving ovarian cancer. She admits, "I was less vigilant. I'd come off a show and I was exhausted. I really wished I had caught it then."

A VISUAL: Bates opted to come forward with her cancer diagnoses in order to be a face for women facing similar difficulties.

Bates chose to have a double mastectomy, but also picked a different public approach to her illness. "My manager didn't want me to be the poster child for ovarian cancer. Then I got breast cancer, and that, combined with seeing Melissa Etheridge doing her thing, made me say, ‘Why not?’ I wanted to give women a face to this cancer."

Additional concerns

Bates also became an outspoken ambassador for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN) in the fight against lymphedema, which can effect up to 30 percent of breast cancer survivors. "The challenge is getting the word out," she says. "Surgeons usually focus on the cancer, period. Unfortunately, people do not get diagnosed."

Bates feels lucky to have a less severe case of lymphedema, and hopes speaking about cancer and lymphedema will promote greater awareness. "Women should make regular visits to the gynecologist and do breast self-exams," she says, reflecting. "Often they're so busy they forget to take care of themselves."