If you’ve watched TV at all during the past couple of decades, you probably recognize the name Shannen Doherty. The actress vaulted to fame a quarter-century ago, when she starred in Beverly Hills 90210. Doherty left the series after four seasons, and since then has appeared regularly on television in a variety of roles.
She had become a fan favorite for millions of viewers, so it was a shock to countless people when the 45-year-old actress announced in 2015 that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.
A private battle becomes public
According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Those affected probably told their family and close friends. The illness can become a bit more public if, for example, you lose your hair during treatment. But for most of us with the disease, it’s a private affair.
Not so with celebrities. Entertainment Tonight, the longest-running entertainment-focused show on television, has reported regularly on Doherty’s cancer experience. The show recently aired a series of video conversations with Doherty in which she detailed her initial diagnosis, treatment, and how cancer has affected her outlook on life.
“I’m going to be dead in five years."
Speaking of her marriage, she reported an early conversation with husband, Kurt Iswarienko, in which she said, “[I] sat down with my husband… and said, ‘You better enjoy every single second that you have with me … ‘cause I’m going to be dead in five years.’ ”
Doherty later noted that "[t]hat phase [of the illness] was short, thank God … [and] my family and my friends got me through.”
Out of context = misinformation
The Doherty interview was posted to ET’s site on Aug. 2, 2016, The next day, other media outlets picked up ET’s interview, giving it their own spin in the process.
“Shannen Doherty predicts she’ll be ‘dead in five years’, ” reported Foxnews.com. The New York Post’s Page Six blared, “Cancer-stricken Shannen Doherty: I’ll be dead in five years."
Neither of those sources added Doherty’s concluding words, in which she noted how short that phase of her illness really was. According to the ET interview, Doherty has hope for her future; she even discussed the possibility of children. But if you’re reading sources that picked up just part of Doherty’s interview — the sensational part of what for 99 percent of us would have been a private family discussion — you might conclude that Doherty believes she is doomed.
Doherty will probably survive
Doherty hasn’t shared all the specifics of her diagnosis and treatment. But given what she’s shared, I’ve pieced together a general picture of her diagnosis (understand, of course, that this is still speculation). She was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer; she had a mastectomy; because the cancer spread to at least one lymph node, she’s going through chemo; and because it may potentially have broken out of one of the lymph nodes, she’ll follow up with radiation.
Coincidentally, this is very close to my own cancer diagnosis and experience: invasive cancer, mastectomy, spread to lymph nodes, spread out of one lymph node, chemo, radiation. And guess what? I’m a 15-year survivor.
During the 15 years between my diagnosis and Doherty’s, there’ve been major advances in treatment; according to the American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016, the breast cancer death rate declined annually between 2003 and 2012 (the last year for which the ACS has figures). The ACS report also notes that overall, as of 2016, approximately 86 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive the disease.
Every woman’s breast cancer is her own; none of us can predict our eventual cause of death. But thankfully, given the facts as she’s shared them, there’s every probability Doherty will survive.
So kudos to you, Shannen, for sharing your cancer experience with your followers, detailing both its initial emotional devastation and your subsequent belief in a good future.
And shame on you, any reporters who chose to turn one small part of that experience into clickbait — leaving fans everywhere with sorrow when there could so easily have been hope.
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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel_, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network. _
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.