- Actress Shannen Doherty says her breast cancer has recurred at stage 4 nearly three years after announcing she was in remission.
- Doherty, 48, opened up about her diagnosis in an interview with Good Morning America: “It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a lot of ways.”
- A cancer doctor explains how it is possible for cancer to recur and what patients can take control of to minimize their risk.
Nearly three years ago, Shannen Doherty announced on Instagram that her breast cancer was in remission. Now, she shared in an emotional new interview that her breast cancer is back—and it’s stage 4. “I don’t think I’ve processed it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a lot of ways,” Doherty told Good Morning America.
Doherty, 48, said she’s struggled with the diagnosis. “I definitely have days where I say ‘Why me?’ And then I go, ‘Well, why not me? Who else? Who else besides me deserves this?’ None of us do,” she said. “But I would say that my first reaction is always concern about how am I going to tell my mom, my husband.”
Doherty first revealed that she had breast cancer in 2015, and regularly documented her treatments and life with the disease on Instagram. But the actress said she wanted to be more private about her cancer journey this time around.
One reason was that she wanted to honor her friend, Luke Perry, who died while filming the 90210 reboot. “It’s so weird for me to be diagnosed and then somebody who was, you know, seemingly healthy to go first,” she said. “It was really shocking, and the least I could do to honor him was to do that show.”
She also wanted to prove that she could still work. “Our life doesn’t end the minute we get that diagnosis. We still have some living to do,” she said. (Alex Trebek shared the same sentiment when he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.)
Doherty also anticipated that her diagnosis would come out as part of her lawsuit against insurance agency State Farm. After her California home was damaged in the Woolsey wildfire in 2018, Doherty said she’s had to pay some costs out of pocket that she believes insurance should cover. “I’d rather people hear it from me. I don’t want it to be twisted. I don’t want it to be a court document. I want it to be real and authentic,” she said. “And I want to control the narrative. I want people to know from me.”
What does stage 4 cancer mean, exactly?
When you have stage 4 breast cancer, the disease has already spread to other parts of the body—such as nearby lymph nodes, the bones, liver, or lungs—meaning it will be more difficult to treat. However, “these cancers are considered incurable,” according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
How is it possible for cancer to recur after remission?
A cancer is said to recur if it’s found after someone has been treated for the disease and after a period of time when the cancer couldn’t be detected. It can come back in the same place where it first started or it might come back elsewhere in the body. “It’s not possible to guarantee that once you have completed cancer treatment the cancer will never come back,” the ACS states.
In breast cancer, for example, if a group of cells happens to survive through treatment (say, radiation or chemotherapy), even just one cell can lead to recurrence as it multiplies and grows uncontrollably into a tumor.
The risk of cancer coming back often depends on the stage the cancer was in and the type of cancer someone had, says Jack Jacoub, M.D., medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif. “Usually, doctors explain your risk of recurrence on day one when talking about treatment types,” he says.
Can you reduce the risk of cancer recurrence?
“What you can do about it is what your doctor advises,” Dr. Jacoub says. “Chemotherapy, radiation therapy—it’s all meant to reduce the risk of recurrence.”
Cancer may recur regardless of what you do, but the ACS says there are certain steps you can take to take back some control. This includes eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (with limited processed and red meat), cutting back on alcohol, and getting regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight. If your doctor recommends screening, it’s also important to continue that as directed, Dr. Jacoub says.
Even though Doherty’s diagnosis has been tough for her, she hopes that coming forward about her recurrence will inspire people who are going through similar experiences. “I think the thing I want to do the most right now is I want to make an impact,” she said. “I want to be remembered for something bigger than just me.”
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