Shannen Doherty On How Breast Cancer Changed Her Body and How She Learned to Love It Again
After a journey through breast cancer and a tough reconstruction process, the actress tells us about how it affected her relationships, learning to love her body again, and her goals for the future.
If you had looked at Shannen Doherty’s life a few years ago, you would have seen something pretty darn idyllic. Through years of hard work and indelible roles on Beverly Hills, 90210 and Charmed, she had established herself as a talented and respected Hollywood actress, and she had found love and settled down with photographer Kurt Iswarienko. Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her world dramatically changed. Shannen immediately swung into action, and what followed was a whirlwind. “It’s been eye-opening, enlightening, and hard,” she admits. “There were definitely dips and valleys where I thought, ‘God, I wish this were easier.’ ” Her initial attempts at fighting the cancer cells with hormone therapy proved to be ineffective, as the disease had spread to her lymph nodes. So in May 2016, Shannen had a single mastectomy, followed by grueling courses of chemotherapy, and then radiation. About a year after radiation was complete, she underwent an intense reconstructive surgery. Now, “I’m in remission,” explains Shannen, 47, “but I’m still not done with this journey. Every five years [cancer-free] is another milestone.” Nonetheless, she is brimming with strength, positivity, and even gratitude for the disease that threatened to end her life. “As brutal as it was, cancer was a gift,” she says. “It opened me up, it taught me about myself, and it changed me as a human being forever.”
Going back, what do you remember about your initial diagnosis?
There was a lump, and I had a mammogram and then a biopsy. When I got the results, I was in the car with my mom and I just knew. The longer I sat, the more it started sinking in. Then I started crying. I called my husband and told him. And from there, I just put together a team—including L.A.-based surgeons Dr. Armando Giuliano and Dr. Jay Orringer and oncologist Dr. Lawrence Piro.
What made you decide to be so candid about everything on social media?
It was just about being as honest as possible. And then it became very important to me that I was there for people who were going through it. I would never give medical advice because I’m not a doctor, but I would always say, “Advocate for yourself.” And also, I get a little less trolls and haters on social media now, so that’s good. I think because cancer stripped me of my defense mechanisms, it allowed people to see all sides of me.
What was the lowest point throughout the journey?
I remember I got in the shower to wash my hair, and it just started coming out in clumps. I started screaming for my mom. I think that was harder than the surgeries. It was like, “Oh my God, this is real.” Right away, I made the decision to shave my head. My friend came over, and she shaved it. We laughed, and we cried. She shaved it in stages, so it was like a pageboy, then punk rock, shaved on the sides. It was a fun experience, considering that I was devastated.
How did your husband of seven years, Kurt Iswarienko, handle it?
A pivotal moment for me was when I was deathly ill from the chemo. They were worried about my organs shutting down because I couldn’t keep anything in. One time, I couldn’t lift my head, I couldn’t suck on an ice cube, I was done. And Kurt was crying, saying, “Please don’t leave me.” I looked at him and thought, “I can’t do this to him.” So I dug deep, gathered everything up, and charged forward again. Kurt and I got through one of the worst things a couple can go through, and we came out stronger.
Instead of a traditional implant, you chose DIEP flap, an innovative breast reconstruction using your own skin and tissue. What brought about that decision?
One of my biggest complaints was that because my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, they really had to remove a lot under my armpit. I could almost feel my rib cage, and it was really bothering me. Plus, you have to replace implants, and I want to go under the knife as little as humanly possible. It’s a harder surgery, for sure. And afterward, the skin is pulled so tight you feel like it’s going to rip open. It’s a crazy feeling.
How was your body affected by everything?
The hormones I went on threw my body into menopause instantly. My metabolism came to a screeching halt, and I put on a ton of weight. Chemo also put on weight for me. Plus, the chemo and radiation drain collagen right out of your skin, so you age really quickly. For me, the hardest part is the scars. Every time I get out of the shower, I look, and it’s like, “Oh my God, I’m Frankenstein.”
How are you learning to love your body again?
I love that my body is strong and that it has the ability to fight something like cancer. I’m trying to show it more appreciation by going to a nutritionist, Dr. Philip Goglia, and doing strength training and boxing at Box ’N Burn almost every day. Importantly, my perception of sexy has changed. For me now, sexy is strength. Sexy is vulnerability. Sexy is compassion. Sexy is grace. Why should I care so much about the physical shell?
Before cancer, you were open about wanting a family. Has that changed?
It’s not possible [for me to get pregnant] because I can’t get out of menopause. That would require estrogen, and I’m choosing not to take hormone pills—I can’t risk those levels coming up. [It’s thought that higher estrogen levels might increase the risk of a cancer reoccurrence.] We’re having conversations about an egg donor, maybe adoption. But there’s fear there. Am I going to last five years? Ten years? I certainly wouldn’t want my 10-year-old burying a mother. I’ve always wanted a kid. But maybe I’m supposed to mother in a different way.
Do you feel different now that you’re in your 40s?
I didn’t even know myself when I was in my 20s. I was a passionate kid, but I was also a scared kid. I hid behind so many things; I hid behind attitude. I want to give that person a hug. In my 30s, I kind of got smart. Now I’m in my 40s, but I’ve had so much to deal with, I’m not sure what my 40s are like. It’s a learning experience, for sure.
How did your cancer battle change you?
I felt more feminine and vulnerable than I’ve felt in my entire life. I was always used to being the strong one, and during that time period, every wall I’d built up in my life came down. I also had a lot more time to look at myself and say, “I’m a pretty OK person” and cut myself some slack. I’ve had a lot of those epiphanies. It’s OK to stumble.
In terms of work, what does the future hold for you?
I love working, and I can’t wait to be back at it full-time. For the first time in my career, I’m looking at it in a very different way. I went through cancer and was methodical in putting a team together and in the decisions I made. That’s how I’m looking at my career now. I’ve always been like, “I just need to work and make money.” I didn’t ever choose with strategy, and now I’m a little more strategic. It’s not a race for me anymore.
What makes you happiest now?
It’s the little things that are making me laugh. The expressions on my dog’s face. My husband playing air guitar as we walk down the street. It’s all those little moments, the ones that make me smile and feel very joyful that I’m still here to enjoy them.
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