Kym Douglas put on a happy face before the TV cameras and fought cancer behind the scenes.
Life was good for Kym Douglas, and good meant busy. The long-time journalist and TV personality covered health and wellness for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and appeared on other shows and infomercials. Always healthy and energetic, she didn’t worry about postponing her mammogram year after year.
“I was about three years late for my mammogram,” says Douglas, 63. “I was so busy, busy, busy that I couldn’t get my mammogram. I drink green juices. I don’t eat meat. I don’t smoke. I had done almost everything right.”Cancer was not in the cards, she thought.
Today, Douglas is wiser and more experienced about the vicissitudes of life. She is also the proud survivor of stage III breast cancer and a big fan of the Providence Saint John’s Health Center team that treated her and got her through a stunning and transformative time in her life. While Douglas looks back with some regret that she didn’t get her regular mammograms on schedule, she says she made the right choice when she selected Saint John’s for her care.
“The place you select for care is important, and Saint John’s provided me with so much grace and kindness,” Douglas says. “When you feel you’ve lost all control, you need to have people around you who make you feel secure. They inspired confidence.”
Douglas’ journey into the bewildering world of cancer began in April 2018 when she scheduled that long-delayed mammogram. Even then, Douglas says, she felt impatient about having to make time for the exam. When her gynecologist, Sheryl A. Ross, MD, asked Douglas to return for another, more specific test, Douglas thought, “This is a false alarm. This is really annoying.”
But it wasn’t a false alarm. Dr. Ross scheduled Douglas for a biopsy after the second imaging test also revealed suspicious findings. Within a few days,Douglas had a diagnosis: ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is a very early-stage type of breast cancer that is sometimes called stage zero, and it’s highly curable. Since the cancerous cells seemed to be scattered throughout her breast, however, Douglas would need a mastectomy. She also decided to have the other, healthy breast removed.“I really prayed about it and talked to my son and husband about it,” she says. “For some reason, during my prayer time, I just kept thinking ‘go ahead and take both breasts.’Everyone said:you have stage zero what are you doing?Why? I thought, I’ll get the surgery and then I’ll never have to think about it again.”
A new diagnosis
The surgery took place in April 2018. Douglas chose the surgeon, Alice Chung, MD, and the reconstructive surgeon, Tiffany Grunwald, MD, to perform the simultaneous mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Everyone felt good about the plan, Douglas recalls.“
The doctors said, ‘Kym, you’re healthy and in great shape. Everything is going to be fine. We’ll be in and out. Don’t worry about a thing,’” she says. “Everything went well.I felt the worst was over. I took care of this, and we’ll move forward.”
A week later, Douglas and her husband Jerry (Jerry Douglas, an actor, died in November 2021) met the doctors for a follow-up of the tests that examined the lymph nodes and tissue margins. The news was devastating. Toward the end of the surgery, Dr. Chung and Dr. Grunwald had found three larger tumors lodged in her chest wall. These tumors were not visible on any of the imaging tests prior to surgery. The diagnosis was now stage III breast cancer.“
Jerry was crying; I was crying,” Douglas recalls. “It was thinking, how do I have three tumors?”
It’s rare to see an initial breast cancer diagnosis go from stage zero to stage III, but surgery sometimes reveals more extensive disease, says Dr. Grunwald.
“It’s one of those things where people think,‘it’s DCIS I don’t have to worry about it.’But we take every case seriously,” says Dr. Grunwald, a board-certified plastic surgeon who is division chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Saint John’s and director of the Women’s Health and Wellness Institute.
Douglas immediately began treatment to halt any recurrence of the cancer. Her treatment regimen included 18 and a half weeks of chemotherapy and eight and a half weeks of radiation. Douglas, ever the stalwart professional, continued with her TV appearances during chemo and radiation, leaving Saint John’s after a treatment and driving to the studios in Burbank. She lost her long, blond hair and her skin became dull.
“I’m a beauty, wellness and health expert on high-definition TV every day,” Douglas says. “I went from Ms. Sunshine to Ms. Nightmare!I was green. I was bald. I had no eyelashes and no eyebrows.I thought, my life is over. Up to that point, I had a pretty charmed life. When this hit it was like, wow.”
Her dear friend, the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, had undergone breast cancer treatment eight months earlier. She gave Douglas a pep talk.“She said to me, you know, Kym, instead of asking why me, you need to flip it and say why not me? It’s my turn now. I have to deal with pretty heavy stuff.”
With Jerry and her son Hunter by her side, Douglas fought her way through the months of treatment. Girlfriends accompanied her to chemotherapy sessions. They would spend the time talking about anything but cancer and negative emotions.
Dr. Grunwald says she is always impressed by the fight her patients demonstrate to themselves and to the outside world. Douglas personified that courage.“
It’s a tremendous part of why I love what I do,” she says. “At the beginning, these patients are like a deer in the headlights. They have a horrible diagnosis. They think their life is going to change forever. And little by little you see them rise to the occasion. They say, ‘I’m doing chemo and then I’m going to work.’ It’s a tremendous transformation to see and be a part of it. It lifts me up every day to see the indomitable spirit of these warrior women.”
At the TV studies, Douglas also found strength and support. But her own determination kept her in front of the camera.“A makeup artist drew on eyebrows and glued on false lashes and slathered me in makeup,” she recalls. “I wore a wig and a big, loose sweater because my skin was raw from the radiation. I stuffed cabbage leaves in my bra to keep the fabric from rubbing on my sore skin. And I went before the cameras and am talking about how to be healthy and beautiful and amazing. I wasn’t going to let cancer steal my positive attitude.”The position of the tumors meant that Douglas needed to receive a maximum dose of radiation, and the radiation cause an extreme skin reaction, says Lisa Chaiken, MD, a board-certified radiation oncologist at Saint John’s who treated Douglas. “Kym was amazing. She just ploughed through it,” Dr. Chaiken says. “She came in with the most positive attitude. Whether it was chemo or radiation, she found a way to deal with it.”
Empathy and appreciation
On the day of her last radiation treatment, Douglas recorded a video message on Instagram as she walked to her car in the Saint John’s parking lot. “I said, ‘it’s my last day of radiation and I’m done, and I thank this hospital and the good Lord. Now I start my healing,” she recalls. “I’m so thankful to my doctors. Dr. Chaiken is the most amazing radiation oncologist. I got through this due to all the good people at Saint John’s.”The Saint John’s breast cancer team works hard at their own communication, organization and friendship so that they can offer seamless, gentle care to their patients, Dr. Grunwald says.“The comprehensive, coordinated care isn’t as unique in breast cancer centers, but the little family that we have here is unique,” she explains. “We have each other’s cell phone numbers. We talk to each other. The physicians are family and friends, and that has a tremendous impact on patient care. Our whole goal is to ease our patients’ way.”
Dr. Chaiken concurs that Saint John’s fosters a uniquely caring atmosphere for its patients. “We have the same state-of-the-art care and advanced technology as any major cancer institute,” she says. “But we treat patients with tender, loving care. From people who actually answer the phones to messages that don’t get lost to patients who text me. We’re available all the time. We’re very hands-on. It gives people a little more sense of control.”Today, cancer-free, Douglas sees life through a different lens. She’s still an in-demand TV personality and plenty busy—but not too rushed to enjoy and take stock of her life.She is hosting a new podcast sponsored by Providence Saint John’s Health Center entitled “Your Healthy Dose.”She has written about her cancer experience and has shared it with viewers.
“I needed to turn my pain into purpose,” she says.“ I changed my priorities drastically. I looked for a new deeper, richer and more meaningful path in my career. I have the privilege be the host of this wonderful, new podcast that helps people learn about their health and understand all the options, doctors and services available to them through Saint Johns. I have learned so much more about my own health and ways to keep my health a top priority—and our podcast listeners will, too.It’s been a blessing and a gift.”
Her health crisis has given her empathy and a new appreciation for the inner strength she found when her life took a frightening turn.
“My illness has given me a deeper purpose,” she says. “Now I can empathize with people who are going through things. I can encourage women to take their health seriously. I can encourage people to always maintain a spirit of hope.”