October 04, 2010 12:00 PM

After the Rolling Stones wrapped their A Bigger Bang tour in August 2007, model Patti Hansen and her husband, Stones guitarist Keith Richards, hosted a raucous barbecue at their country home near London two months later. “I was looking at photos of all of us going nuts on tour,” Hansen says. “We were all laughing, drinking, having a party.” Later that night, she went to the bathroom and to her surprise noticed she was urinating blood. Not wanting to alarm anyone, Hansen slipped into a silent panic. “One minute you are laughing hysterically,” she says, “the next minute you are wondering, ‘What is happening to me?'”

That moment marked the beginning of Hansen’s tumultuous six-month fight against bladder cancer, a disease that mostly occurs in older men but affected roughly 18,000 women in the U.S. last year (see box). For the Staten Island native-who was discovered at age 16 and became one of the most coveted cover girls in the ’70s-the diagnosis came as a startling blow. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'” says Hansen, 54, sitting at the kitchen table of her Connecticut home. “You’re just in this fog.” Compounding her disbelief was the fact that she had overcome a breast-cancer scare in 2005. “I didn’t have the ‘Why me?’ moment,” says Hansen, who lost sister Beverly Lavaroni to esophageal and lung cancer at age 56 and sister Barbara Bougades to lung cancer at 66. “But I did feel like cancer was out to get me.”

When Hansen broke the news of her bladder cancer to Richards, 66, and their daughters Theodora, 25, and Alexandra, 24, “it was such a shock,” says Alexandra. “She’s the backbone of this family. She is the lioness.” But no one was rattled more than Richards. “He was in total denial,” says Hansen, who wed the rocker in 1983. “He definitely shut down,” adds Alexandra. “He thought the worst.”

While Richards’ wild past with drugs is rock lore, Hansen-a Pilates fan and organic foodie-has always been “uberhealthy,” Alexandra says. But during an annual mammogram in November 2005, her doctor discovered a cancerous lump. “It was small,” says Hansen, who had a lumpectomy. “I didn’t have to do any treatment.” Still, says Alexandra, “it was a scary experience.”

Bladder cancer was far scarier. After the London incident, she flew to New York City, where a doctor discovered a mass in her bladder. After a diagnostic cystoscopy, her surgeon Bernard Bochner of Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center diagnosed her with stage II muscle-invasive bladder cancer, which left her with “a 50-50 chance of surviving,” says Bochner.

Hansen immediately began a three-month course of chemotherapy, which “threw me for a loop,” says the 5’9″ model, who lost 20 lbs. and her fun-loving spirit. “I didn’t lose my hair. But I just sat there like a bump on a log. Keith and I watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies like couch potatoes.” Says Alexandra: “Dad held her hand throughout the whole thing.”

It was Hansen’s deep Christian faith that buoyed her strength when she underwent surgery to remove her infected bladder in April 2008. If during the operation Bochner had found that the tumor had spread to an adjacent organ, Hansen’s insides would have had to be rerouted so that she would urinate through a catheter inserted through an opening below her belly button. “I was like, ‘I’m going to become a man!’ I did comic drawings of myself as a fountain!” says Hansen, who was “praying, praying, praying” that wouldn’t be her fate.

After a five-hour procedure, her prayers were answered. She came out of the operating room with a new bladder created out of her small intestine that works “the same as before,” she says. Only now “I get a cramp which alerts me that I need to go.” Cancer-free for the past two years, Hansen has started a new chapter as a handbag designer with Hung On U-a line of cross-body carry-alls she launched online with two friends. Part of the profits will benefit the Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation. “It’s nice to be able to give back,” says Hansen.

Along with new partnerships, Hansen’s priority has been “really connecting with people you love.” At the top of that list? Richards, with whom she now has “a really open relationship. I used to hold back so much from him. I didn’t want to tell him the bad stuff. Now I tell him every little thing that’s going on,” she says. Lately, though, there has only been good news to report. “I’m so blessed,” Hansen says. “I feel so healed.”

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