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- American actress
On a cool evening in February 2019, Shannen Doherty invited some friends to a Venice, California, rental house for a dinner party. Doherty’s actual home was in Malibu, 20 miles north, but she and her husband, photographer Kurt Iswarienko, had fled the property a few months earlier, when a wildfire that started inland burned nearly 100,000 acres on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The couple’s house survived the blaze, but Doherty says the property sustained significant damage that made it uninhabitable.
The guest list for the dinner included only people Doherty trusted: her husband and the friends who knew the real Shannen—not the 1990s tabloid caricature, the loudmouthed bad girl with a temper. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar was there, along with model Anne Marie Kortright, Malibu real estate agent Chris Cortazzo, and a Los Angeles doctor named Lawrence Piro.
Doherty had compiled the guest list, but it was Piro, her oncologist, who drove the conversation. Less than two years earlier, the actress had finished treatment for breast cancer, and Piro was at the dinner to explain that Doherty’s disease was back. The cancer, Piro said, was now metastatic (also known as Stage IV), meaning it had spread beyond Doherty’s breast and lymph nodes. “The way he presented everything to everyone was matter-of-fact,” Doherty, 49, tells me when we speak in June. The news was devastating, of course, and Doherty had invited Piro so her friends could get answers to the questions she knew they would have. Would she die of this? Probably. Would she die soon? Probably not. Why did this happen? It was impossible to know. Could this be treated? Yes, to a point. “Everybody got to ask questions and know what we were looking at as a group, as a team,” Doherty says.
About 300,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. In the majority of cases, initial treatment for the disease is effective, curing the patient. But in a significant share of cases, the breast cancer returns, either to the breast or nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body. In Doherty’s case, despite the surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation she had undergone after her first diagnosis, it seemed that some cancer cells had survived the assault and made their way to her spine. Eventually, the disease will most likely spread further, to Doherty’s brain, lungs, liver, or some combination thereof.
Still, there was reason for hope, Piro told the group. Treatment for metastatic breast cancer, which was once an automatic death sentence, has advanced in recent years, with patients living longer and having a better quality of life. Some survive for a decade or more. Doherty’s treatment would include hormone therapy to block the estrogen fueling her cancer, plus a second targeted drug that is often effective at stabilizing metastatic disease. If this didn’t work, there were other drug combinations to try, but the bottom line was that Doherty would be in treatment for the rest of her life. As Piro explained all this, his patient sat at the table, listening.
Nearly 30 years after she played Brenda Walsh on Beverly Hills, 90210, Doherty is still striking, with high cheekbones and shiny, jet-black hair. “I think people have a mental picture of Stage IV cancer as someone sitting in a gray hospital gown, looking out a window on their deathbed,” Iswarienko, tells me. “I don’t see a cancer patient when I look at Shannen. I see the same woman I fell in love with. She looks healthy and vital.”
As if a massive wildfire and a metastatic cancer diagnosis weren’t enough, there was more bad news to come. Weeks after the Venice dinner, Doherty’s 90210 costar Luke Perry died suddenly of a massive stroke. After the show, they had grown apart, but they’d reconnected in recent years. They were even talking about working together, developing a new television project.
At a memorial service for Perry in March 2019, Doherty saw Brian Austin Green, the only other 90210 castmate she could call a close friend. Green had known Doherty even before they were onscreen together, and she shared the news of her metastatic diagnosis with him, even though she was keeping it under wraps publicly. Doherty and Green chatted at the memorial, and the conversation eventually shifted to the latest reboot of the show, called BH90210, a scripted-reality version of the old nighttime drama set in the present day. Castmates Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth had helped come up with the idea for the series, which had been green-lighted at Fox, and all the principals of the original had signed on—except Doherty.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Doherty was dead set against doing the show. “I had already done two 90210s by that point,” she says. “I didn’t really see it as something that was going to help, but I did feel that it could stir up stuff from when I was 19 years old.”
The 1990s made Doherty a household name, but the decade also left scars. She had helped build 90210 and the Fox network into juggernauts, but on and off set, she seemed to run into problems wherever she went. Celebrity tabloids regularly published stories about Doherty fighting with producers, writers, and actors. She was a diva, according to reports. She was a bitch, they said, impossible to deal with. A 1993 People magazine cover declared Doherty “Out of Control!” after the actress’s ex-fiancé accused her in court of threatening him with bodily harm. The story itself, one of many like it, reported that Doherty had “left a trail of bad debts, trashed homes, exhausted friendships, and wasted relationships.” There was even an I Hate Brenda newsletter devoted to bad-mouthing Doherty and her onscreen character. “The more stories that were written about me, the more defensive and closed off I became,” Doherty tells me. “And the bigger the walls I built around me. I had a lot of resentment.”
Doherty had worked hard to move on from that time. When the newest reboot came around, she had long been out of the spotlight, but her relative obscurity had an upside—privacy, which she prized more than anything. She didn’t want to go back, to the tabloids or her castmates. But Green asked her to reconsider. “I was really pitching her: ‘I know it’s going to be fucking hard, but come do it. I think it’ll be really good for you,’ ” Green says. The actors had grown up and were all different people now, Green told her, and so was she. He would act as a buffer if she needed one. “ ‘This is a rare opportunity to experience each other again in a much different way,’ ” Green says he told her.
Perry’s death shifted things for Doherty. Maybe the show could be a sort of tribute to him. Maybe it was a chance to prove to herself that metastatic breast cancer didn’t mean the end of working. Maybe it was both. “Things happen and you go, ‘All right, this is what I’m supposed to be doing at this moment,’ ” she says.
This moment would be different. Doherty had changed, yes, but so had her ability to fight back against negative stories in the celebrity press. “I knew that once I signed up for the show, the bullshit would start all over again. And, in fact, it did,” she says. The reboot’s showrunner and several writers quit before the new show began shooting, and rumors swirled that Doherty was once again acting out. “I addressed it immediately,” Doherty says. On Instagram, she wrote, “I refuse to be cast in the same villain role because ‘journalists’ lack imagination.… I am a woman with my own story.” She wrote that the rumors about her causing upheaval with the new show were untrue and that she was a more complicated person than the headlines made her seem: “I promise,” she wrote, “you don’t know me.”
A breast cancer patient in remission knows it’s never really over. There is the long-lasting damage from the treatment to contend with—the lingering effects of chemotherapy, for example, or the loss of a natural breast that can never be replaced, plastic surgery notwithstanding. The terror of the diagnosis is also hard to forget, especially because after breast cancer treatment ends, there is always the chance the disease might recur.
A few weeks before her Venice dinner party, Doherty underwent a PET scan. She had been having some back pain, sharper than the aches and pains she sometimes had after exercising or raking the yard. “It was no longer, ‘I worked out, and I’m a little sore.’ It was like, ‘God, this hurts!’ ” she says.
Iswarienko, whom Doherty met in 2008 when he was assigned to photograph her for a magazine, was in Manchester, England, on a photo shoot, so Doherty was alone when Piro called to say the PET scan showed that her breast cancer had returned.
As Doherty hung up the phone, the news lingered in the air around her. She paced and cried. She started looking up experimental breast cancer trials in Europe. She thought about all the things she hadn’t gotten around to doing, like taking a trip to Botswana and Kenya. Mostly, though, Doherty thought about the trajectory of her life: “I was like, ‘Okay, do I have good karma? Do I have bad karma? Why would I have bad karma?’ I started taking stock of my life and the things I’d done, and the things I hadn’t done. How I was with people.”
Doherty’s 1990s reputation as a troublemaker, she admits, wasn’t entirely undeserved. “At 19 years old, diplomacy is not something that you understand,” she says. On the set of 90210, Doherty says, directors and producers would tell her to keep quiet and just do her job. “Basically, treating me like I’m a dog and I need to just follow their commands. Telling a 19-year-old who’s intelligent, who was raised to not be that way at all, you don’t go, ‘Oh, how can I massage this?’ ” she says. “Instead, I was like, ‘Where’s my sledgehammer?’ But the more I used the sledgehammer to break that down, the worse it got for me.”
Amid the brutal tabloid headlines about her behavior on set, Doherty was secretly coping with tumult that had nothing to do with acting. “People didn’t think I was private, because I was going out and was a party girl. But meanwhile, I was struggling a lot,” she says. Doherty’s father, Tom, who died in 2010, had a series of heart attacks and strokes throughout the filming of 90210. He was also diagnosed with diabetes and, eventually, kidney failure. “He was my rock, my best friend, my mentor. As much as he struggled in his own way, I idolized him,” Doherty says. Suddenly wealthy thanks to 90210, Doherty paid her father’s medical bills and visited the hospital more times than she could count.
She says she joined the Hollywood club scene as a means of escape, not rebellion. “It becomes a snowball effect. I’m running from my problems and my fears of losing my dad and the pressure of it,” Doherty says. “I went through an incredibly self-destructive stage.”
After she was fired from 90210, four years into the series’ 10-year run, producer Aaron Spelling cast her in WB’s Charmed. The show, which debuted in 1998, helped put the fledgling network on the map, but Doherty’s clashes with costar Alyssa Milano reportedly led to her exit in 2001. Doherty went on to star in a series of made-for-television movies, short-lived TV series, and a reality show about planning her wedding.
Putting her nuptials on television made it seem like Doherty was an open book, but in truth, she remained intensely private, suspicious of outsiders. She trusted only her husband, mother, and closest friends with her true self.
But then she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. “When I got cancer the first time, it was this really beautiful thing, because it finally stripped all of that away. Those walls were, like, eliminated. That sort of childhood resentment—19 to me is childhood—was gone,” she says.
With cancer, there was no more hiding. In 2016, Doherty posted a photograph on Instagram of Kortright shaving her head in the midst of chemotherapy. A few months later, she walked a red carpet for a cancer benefit wearing a head scarf. After three decades in the public eye, Doherty finally let her fans (and her haters) see her vulnerabilities. “She was always afraid to show people that Shannen, because she was supposed to be tough,” Gellar says.
Gellar remembers going to a charity carnival event in Malibu last year. While Doherty escorted Gellar’s daughter around the rides and food stands, strangers approached her with words of support. “The old Shannen would have been skeptical: ‘What do they really want?’ She used to be so guarded,” Gellar says. But post-cancer, Doherty reacted differently. “Everybody was coming up to her to hug her, and she welcomed that. The fact that her public persona could finally match up with the private persona gave her some peace.”
The day she received her metastatic cancer diagnosis, Doherty tells me that she eventually reached a conclusion. “At the end of that, what I came out with was, I have good karma. It may not seem like it, but I’ve been a really good human being.”
Shortly after Perry’s memorial, Doherty signed a deal to costar in BH90210, the new version of the old show that had made her famous. She flew to Vancouver to film in May 2019, three months after her metastatic diagnosis. No one but Green knew about her health status, although during filming she eventually confided in her costar Ian Ziering one night over dinner at a tapas restaurant. The premise of the show, which aired on Fox in late summer 2019, is as meta as it gets. Doherty and her castmates from the original Beverly Hills, 90210, play exaggerated versions of themselves getting back together to film a new season of the show.
Although the series was not picked up for a second season, Doherty says signing on was the right decision. “I’m very grateful I did it. It was nice seeing everyone again from a new perspective,” she says.
Doherty and Iswarienko moved back to their Malibu house early this year, after a year of living in hotel rooms, rental houses, and friends’ houses. (Doherty is suing her homeowner’s insurance company, alleging they have not adequately compensated her for losses caused by the 2018 wildfire. In court documents, the insurer disputes Doherty’s claims.)
As a cancer patient, Doherty is at a high risk of dying from COVID-19, and so once she and her husband returned home, they decided to hunker down alone. The couple were hoping to rebuild their massive vegetable garden, which was destroyed by the fire. Given the lockdown, they decided to do it themselves. They started with some lettuce, planted in a six-by-six raised bed Iswarienko built from lumber.
“The lettuce grew beautifully, day in and day out,” Iswarienko says. Then, one day, half of it was suddenly gone. “Long story short: rabbits,” he adds. So he stretched his newfound carpentry skills further, building an A-frame cover for the lettuce patch. He did such a good job that Doherty asked him to build some supports for the tomatoes she wanted to grow. “I went into a full-blown woodworking obsession,” Iswarienko says.
A few months later, Doherty texts me photographs of eight large raised garden beds bursting with bell peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, broccoli, strawberries, herbs, and more. Iswarienko had gotten so into the project that he built a woodworking studio on their property. Doherty says she has taken to ambling outside with her German shepherd, Bowie, and a glass of wine in the evenings to watch Iswarienko work. “I try to treasure all the small moments that most people don’t really see or take for granted,” Doherty says. “The small things are magnified for me. We have this endless well within us, and it’s just about continuing to dig in that well for the strength to face adversity—and so that we can also see all the beauty.”
As a person with a deadly illness, Doherty can’t help but imagine a future without her in it. She has mentally cataloged her possessions and thought about which items should go to whom. “I haven’t sat down to write letters. That’s something I need to do,” she says. “There are things I need to say to my mom. I want my husband to know what he’s meant to me.” For the first time in our conversations, Doherty’s voice cracks. She says she has also thought about making video messages for them to watch after her death. “But whenever it comes time for me to do it, it feels so final. It feels like you’re signing off, and I’m not signing off,” she says. “I feel like I’m a very, very healthy human being. It’s hard to wrap up your affairs when you feel like you’re going to live another 10 or 15 years.”
In the meantime, Doherty is developing a number of projects, including a new television show, and researching ways to use her public profile to advocate on behalf of other metastatic breast cancer patients. “It’s like anybody with Stage IV faces this sort of thing, where others want to put you out to pasture,” Doherty says. “I’m not ready for pasture. I’ve got a lot of life in me.”
Photography: Kurt Iswarienko; Visual Editor: Sameet Sharma.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue.
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