"What's your biggest fear?" Sarah Michelle Gellar asks her longtime friend, Shannen Doherty. The women are sitting down together at Doherty's California home discussing her stage IV cancer diagnosis.
"Ground squirrels eating the rest of my vegetable garden," Doherty replies, her brow furrowed. "By the way, you missed all the heirloom tomatoes, because those squirrels ate all of them... So yeah," she reiterates, "ground squirrels are my biggest fear at this point."
The actress, 49, isn't being flip. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2015, and although her cancer went into remission after treatment, it returned in 2019 and had become metastatic. Doherty is well aware of what a stage IV diagnosis means. It's just that when confronted with the terminal, she focused on living.
Doherty, who first became iconic in the '90s as Brenda Walsh on Beverly Hills, 90210 and one of Charmed's original Halliwell sisters, is still a working actor. (She shot 2019's 90210 meta-reboot after her cancer had returned.) Now, she's equally proud to be an ambassador for Stand Up To Cancer. ("When someone says to me, 'Do you think there is going to be a cure?' I say yeah," she says. "Because of organization likes Stand Up To Cancer.")
With October marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Doherty opened up to ET's very special correspondent (Gellar) about her health during an in-depth conversation that also delved into how their friendship has helped the two take on cancer, a global pandemic and more than three decades in the industry. Mostly, Doherty just wants you to know that she's good.
"I love it when people say, 'we're praying for you,' and everything else, but there comes a point when you're like, 'I got this. I'm fine. I'm good,'" she says. "There are a lot of people in the world who could use prayers, and I'm feeling great. I have an amazing medical team behind me and--"
"And you can lap me at an exercise class," Gellar chimes in.
"I have a few OK friends and stuff," Doherty grins. "I'm doing OK. I'm doing better than OK. I'm doing well. I feel strong and healthy and confident and happy."
Taking on Cancer
Doherty shared her diagnosis in February amid a court case with her insurance provider. "I didn't want some big insurance corporation that doesn't really care about human beings controlling my narrative and controlling my story," she explains. "Because it is my story."
Alongside becoming an increasingly vocal advocate for cancer education and awareness, she has a personal mission of challenging the idea of what it looks like to be living with stage IV.
"I want people to not hear stage IV cancer and think of the person that is gray and falling over and they can't move and they're going into hospice and they can't work," she says. "You get written off so quickly, even though you're vital and healthy and happy and wanting to go out there and work. So, I'm sharing in order to hopefully give a different face to all of this."
Before going public with the news that her cancer had returned, however, Doherty had to inform those closest to her. She did so during an intimate dinner with friends and family at the home she shares with husband Kurt Iswarienko.
SHANNEN DOHERTY: I had just gotten diagnosed and I wanted you and Anne Marie [Kortright] and Chris [Cortazzo] and the closest people in my life to be told but not just told to -- because I'm the type of person, I'd just call you and be like, "Listen, I got Stage IV. It's back and I'll be OK." -- but I knew that particularly someone like you would have more questions. So, for me to have Dr. Piro, my oncologist, be there so that he could answer the questions in a very matter-of-fact way… he was able to sort of squash any doubts that people had or to say, "Hey, don't Google, because when you do that you're going to get some crazy, like, this short of period of time to live," and that's just really not the case. It was really to help you guys.
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: Not that this is about me -- but since I clearly like to make everything about me -- for me, the biggest learning experience through all of this is the education and not being afraid to ask questions. I think that's the hardest thing is you never know as the friend, the family, what is your place [and] what are you supposed to do. And to be able to have an open forum where you can ask those questions and understand is the greatest gift. I think it helps us be a better support system for you.
DOHERTY: I agree, and I think asking questions is imperative. I never look at it as you're bothering me or I don't want to answer these or I get uncomfortable. I would rather somebody ask me or a doctor questions as opposed to having questions and just going on to Google, because there's so much misinformation or information that's true for a particular kind of cancer or the way that your cancer travels coastally. There's so many different things that go into how a person is reacting or dealing with cancer, and people don't consider that, so they instantly think it's a death sentence. And it's not.
GELLAR: Yeah, I like to think I'm an M.D., but I think it stands for "mom doctor."
"You get written off so quickly, even though you're vital and healthy and happy."
GELLAR: How have you found the support from the people around you? And I always see strangers come up to you. How do you feel on the street when someone comes up to you?
DOHERTY: Support from my family, my friends, my loved ones -- I mean, my friends are my family -- has been phenomenal. You know how supportive you've been. Anne Marie, Chris, obviously my mom has been a big support and my husband and let's not forget about Bowie, who's been the best dog ever.
GELLAR: Who, for some reason, my son is convinced is a boy, even though we all know Bowie is a girl. And now we're eight years in and he's still calling Bowie a boy.
DOHERTY: But the fact that my story and my diagnosis has maybe reached somebody else or helped them get through it -- because we all just focus only on the person with the cancer, but there's everybody else. There is that support system. There is the, how is it impacting my mom? How is it impacting my husband? How is it impacting my friends? How is it impacting strangers who don't know me, but they feel like they are connected to me? It goes back to that question of, why me? And I'm going to answer all of them together, because this is a perfect example of why me. Because I'm able to have a platform and with that platform, I'm actually able to reach more people and possibly help them and touch them, along with raising awareness, raising more money, advocating for cancer rights and being able to help those family members and direct them to a website -- like standuptocancer.org, for example -- to say, "Hey, you can get support. You can get help. Just because you're not the one with cancer, doesn't mean you're not going through something emotional." Which, you're my friend, you're going through this with me, how has this impacted you?
GELLAR: I never want to be the narrator for somebody's else's story, so I don't like answering for you. But people come up to me all the time and they ask me about you with such genuine concern. All I can think about is that effect that you have, that people feel like, "I went through Brenda falling in love" -- and I actually literally did, because I knew you and I was your friend -- so I see the impact that that has on people and I know the ability that you have to reach people. I'm proud with how open you've been about it... Nobody ever wants to see their friend suffer, but I think more than that -- and I think this year has been proof of that -- is that life is short and vulnerable for all of us. We have to live for each moment, because there is a clock for everybody. I think people forget that.
DOHERTY: Right? Everybody's terminal. I might live a lot longer than somebody who's perfectly healthy. You have no idea. Also, there are so many different clinical trials going on at the moment. I think that almost every cancer patient is sort of chasing it. You're chasing the meds. Your meds keep working and working and working and then at some point, perhaps your body shuts down to them and you run out of different protocols to use. But really, you're just hoping that by the time that happens, they have something else. And normally they do.
GELLAR: That's why you don't give up, because tomorrow is that day.
Taking on Quarantine
Doherty's diagnosis changed her life in ways big and small. Then the coronavirus appeared and changed the world completely -- though not really for Doherty. Already someone who loved to hole up at home, she began isolating before most major cities officially went into lockdown.
"I recognized that there was a problem and I started quarantining way sooner than most people did," Doherty recalls. "We set a protocol in place, Kurt was going to go to the grocery store [and] my mom came and she stayed with us for a while. We were very diligent about how we sanitized, how things were cleaned. That was for me."
Many months into the pandemic, with the world in various stages of reopening and people adapting to an indeterminate new normal, Doherty and Gellar's families are social podding together, which involves a lot of happy hours, early morning workouts and TikTok challenges.
DOHERTY: As you know, I've been training for this my entire life. I'm essentially a shut-in to begin with, so this has felt amazing-- [Laughs]
GELLAR: The only person to answer that question that way.
DOHERTY: With that being said, I also didn't go in for my blood panel for probably three months, and you're supposed to go once a month. I resisted, because I didn't want to be in a doctor's office. I didn't want to go to a clinic. I didn't want to to be exposed. There are many cancer patients whose treatments have been canceled altogether -- chemo, radiation, just canceled. For that, I think the pandemic has been extremely, extremely difficult. I see those people walking around who still don't want to wear a mask or they're wearing a mask down [under their nose], and I'm like, I understand that you're annoyed that you have to wear a mask, but let's think about the people who are just trying to pick up something to eat that's healthy [or] who needs to be in chemo and they can't even get to their chemo appointment anymore. Let's think about our elders, our immunocompromised.
GELLAR: I did a movie in Japan a very long time ago, and that was when I was first introduced to masks. It was in winter and it's very cold in Japan and at one point I got sick. They told me to put my mask on, and I wore my mask and I infected nobody -- none of my co-stars, nobody. I was able to do my regular day, I went on the subway every day, I was able to go to the grocery store and not feel guilty. And I thought, "How is that not a thing here?" Pandemic aside, just for germs in general. Plus, not having to do my makeup except for like some mascara, as a woman, is amazing.
DOHERTY: It's genius, between the mask and a baseball hat and sunglasses--
GELLAR: As hard and difficult as 2020 has been, the upside has been the strengthening in the relationships that I have been able to either physically be with or emotionally be with during this. I think that slowing down has been really beneficial to those relationships and growing those relationships. I still want it to go away!
DOHERTY: I agree. I mean, there are those people that have passed from it and it's horrific and you just pray for their families. But it's also been a reset for a lot of people, resetting your priorities and what matters in life and spending more time creating your quarantine pod that you get to hang out with and see... My biggest fear is that people are just going to forget and that reset is going to just go away. I'm really, really, really hoping that we all remember this time period and what it was like and the fact that we did get closer with our families, maybe we made the time to sit down and have family dinners when before we weren't able to.
GELLAR: I don't think we'll forget, because I know that some of these traditions -- like Saturday night dinners and some of those things -- I couldn't live my life without them. There's so many things in COVID I've learned to live without, but--
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Doherty and Gellar have been friends since their days starring on The WB in the late '90s. (On Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, respectively.) Their bond has only grown closer over the years, through reboots and remakes and all of the major life events in between. Speaking about what their friendship means "is probably the one time I'll start getting emotional," Doherty laughs, "which is really funny."
"It's so nice for me to have a female friend that feels no threat, no jealousy. We have never felt that with each other. We've done nothing but lift each other up and support each other in our careers and champion one another," Doherty says.
The same goes for Gellar. "I haven't had the easiest time working with a lot of women and it's never been the most positive," she explains. "But to have someone that believes in me the way you do when I don't believe in myself and that shows me how to fight for the things that are important to me and the things that I want and the things that I deserve..."
"In this industry, where women are so often pitted against each other and it's not about supporting other women, to have someone that I know loves me for me," Gellar adds. "I'm very lucky."
DOHERTY: My favorite thing about my friendship with Sarah is definitely your children. They are now like my children. I love them madly. It's even better than having my own children, because--
GELLAR: I take them home at the end of the weekend.
DOHERTY: Did your kids like Buffy or 90210 better?
GELLAR: My kids are too young for 90210, although Charlotte has, like, been begging for 90210.
DOHERTY: What about Charmed?
GELLAR: So, they're just finishing Buffy, and they're getting ready to start the first three years of Charmed.
DOHERTY: And only the first three years. Then we're just going to turn it off.
GELLAR: There's more than three years? I don't think so. Well, there's three years and a reboot.
GELLAR: Let's talk about 90210 for the fans out there. Maybe this is just really a question for me, because we all know I was a huge 90210 fan. I know you were originally hesitant to do the reboot, and I know that there might've been someone sitting right here that really forced you to do it because they wanted to see you in it.
DOHERTY: Well, you're right, I didn't want to do it. I have my reasons for not wanting to do it. One of them is I've played the character so many times and I've done so many versions of 90210 that it felt like we had exhausted that avenue. And I believe less is more sometimes. You want to leave people wanting to see a show, as opposed to being like, "Oh my god, I hope that never comes back on the air." So, I was just a little trepidatious, and someone very important to me passed away and I got my diagnosis and it was all sort of within a couple of months, and it just made me give pause and rethink it. And yes, it was a way to honor Luke -- which was important to me -- but it was also a way to, I don't want to say honor myself--
GELLAR: How about honor your fans?
DOHERTY: Honor my fans, but I think it was a way to honor my cancer family, by saying, "Hey, nobody's going to know, but at least when it comes out that I have stage IV, I will have been able to say, "Yes, but I worked throughout it."
GELLAR: I had so many friends that were crew members, and everyone kept saying, "Oh my goodness, Shannen is the most professional. These hours were so long, and no one hits their marks," and I was like, "Yep, that's my girl." And knowing what I knew at the time, that you'd had that diagnosis and that it didn't affect anything and you looked amazing and hot and gorgeous--
DOHERTY: Thank you. I'm still able to work a 16, 18-hour day.
GELLAR: I'm not, just in case anyone's watching. I am not able to do that. I would fall asleep... The one thing I will say about this journey is that I love that for the first time, other people see the Shannen that I've known all these years. You've always been so tough and you put this exterior out, and the vulnerable side of Shannen is someone I've known my whole life. [Now], other people get to see that side of you.