"I'm petrified," the actress said when she shared the news that her breast cancer came back. Here's why a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis can be so frightening.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated February 05, 2020
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Shannen Doherty had good news to share in 2017: her breast cancer, which she had been battling since 2015, was in remission. But this week, the actress, 48, revealed that her cancer journey isn’t over yet. In an interview with ABC News that aired Tuesday on Good Morning America, Doherty said she’d been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. 

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“It’s going to come out in a matter of days or a week that I’m stage 4. So my cancer came back, and that’s why I’m here,” Doherty told Amy Robach. “I don’t think I’ve processed it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a lot of ways.”

Since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Doherty spoke openly about her health. But she kept the latest news quiet, partly due to the death of her friend and former Beverly Hills 90210 co-star Luke Perry. 

“It’s so weird for me to be diagnosed and then somebody who was, you know, seemingly healthy to go first,” said Doherty. “It was really, like, shocking.”

What does it mean to have stage 4 cancer? Also known as metastatic cancer, this type of cancer has grown past the body part or organ where it was initially found and spread to distant organs and lymph nodes in the body. Though Doherty did not reveal if she was undergoing treatment, stage 4 cancer can be treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

Survival rates vary depending on the type of breast cancer as well as the stage at diagnosis, among other factors. The SEER database, which tracks survival rates for breast cancer, doesn't use numbered stages but instead stages cancer under three categories: localized, regional, and distant. The 5-year survival rate for people initially diagnosed with localized breast cancer is 99%, the survival rate for those initially diagnosed with regional breast cancer is 86%, and for distant the survival rate is 27%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Another reason Doherty initially kept the news private was to show that people with stage 4 cancer can continue to lead a “normal” life. 

“One of the reasons, along with Luke, that I did 90210 and didn’t really tell anybody [was] because I thought, people can look at that [as] people with stage 4 can work too,” she told ABC News. “Our life doesn’t end the minute we get that diagnosis. We still have some living to do.”

While trying to live her life to the fullest, Doherty naturally has down days, but tries to keep things in perspective.  

“I definitely have days where I say, ‘Why me?’ ” she said. “And then I go, well, ‘Why not me? Who else? Who else besides me deserves this?’ None of us do.”

In 2019, Doherty told Health that her cancer diagnosis helped her find a whole new kind of strength. 

“I felt more feminine and vulnerable than I’ve felt in my entire life,” she said. “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 okay person’ and cut myself some slack,” she added. “I’ve had a lot of those epiphanies. It’s okay to stumble.”

Doherty said she hoped that speaking publicly about her cancer journey in interviews and on social media would provide some support to people going through similar health issues. She's had a long journey: Initial attempts to fight the disease with hormone therapy didn’t work because the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent a single mastectomy in May 2016, followed by chemotherapy then radiation; the following year she had intense reconstructive surgery.

“It was just about being as honest as possible,” she said. “And then it became very important to me that I was there for people who were going through it.” 

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