Every October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while we go out and buy our pink bags and limited-edition pink sweatshirts in support and commemoration of the occasion, it can be hard to remember the bigger picture. Behind lung cancer, breast cancer is the second biggest cancer killer of women and is one of the most common cancers among US women. One in eight women born today is estimated to be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lifetime, and it can develop as early as their 20s. Celebrities, while not immune, often use their status and popularity as a way to bring awareness to the cause, with most crusading for early detection. When detected early and still at a localized stage, the survival rate can be as high as 98 percent. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013 (their latest information) “232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed as well as an estimated 64,640 additional cases of in situ breast cancer.” Of this total, 39,620 are expected to die from the disease. If you haven’t done a self-breast exam yet this month then it’s time to get on it—we’re sure these ladies would want you to.
Christina Applegate, most recognized for her early roles as Kelly on Married with Children, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when she was only 36 years old. Her mother was a breast cancer survivor and knowing what could lie before her, the actress chose to have a preventive double mastectomy despite having found cancer in only one breast. "I am a 36-year-old person with breast cancer, and not many people know that that happens to women my age or women in their 20s," she told Oprah at the time. "This is my opportunity now to go out and fight as hard as I can for early detection."
Sheryl Crow was raising money and awareness about cancer long before she was diagnosed in 2006, but since then she has been advocating yearly testing and monthly self-breast exams. After going through the more traditional route of surgery and radiation, she has made drastic lifestyle and dietary choices to prevent her cancer from returning. "Something happens when you're diagnosed with a disease," she told Good Housekeeping in 2010. "Your emotions start racing, and clarity is reached." Shortly after her remission she adopted her sons Wyatt and Levi.
Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon initially kept mum about her diagnosis, believing that it would somehow hinder her career. Originally diagnosed in 2006 she didn’t reveal her condition until two years later after going through a lumpectomy and radiation therapy. Her mother was a breast cancer survivor and helping her mother through her own battle allowed Nixon to be more positive about her own outlook. “She was comfortable in the medical world because it was her mother's world. She passed that on to me. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew it wasn't a death sentence,” she told Newsweek in 2008.
Australian singer Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at the age of 37, but only after receiving a clean bill of health when she asked doctors about a lump she had found in her breast. Uncertain about the results she asked for a second opinion and it was discovered she had been misdiagnosed—it was a cancerous tumor. Even before her diagnosis Minogue was fighting to end breast cancer and had previously auctioned off one of her bras for $6,880 to raise money for the cause. “It is years until you really get the all clear and by the time my hair started growing back it was very exciting, it was like a miracle,” she told 60 Minutes.
Olivia Newton John of Grease fame was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 after finding a lump when doing her monthly self-examination. Though her tests all came out negative she stressed that she knew something was wrong. "I wasn't feeling right and I had found lumps before, but this time, it just felt different," she told Everyday Health. “My instincts were telling me that something wasn't right. After a surgical biopsy, they found the cancer. I don't tell the story to scare people but to really stress the importance of knowing your own body and trusting your instincts. This is the very reason I am now such a big supporter of monthly breast self-exams." After surgery and radiation, the Australian went home to recuperate and now shares her experience with others to stress the importance of knowing your own body and early detection.
Even magical Dame Maggie Smith isn’t immune to breast cancer. During filming of the sixth Harry Potter installment, Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 73. Struggling through filming due to her intense round of chemotherapy, she considered quitting at times due to her lack of strength and energy. “I didn’t think it was anything serious because years ago I felt a lump and it was benign. I assumed this would be too. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails, and I don’t know what the future holds, if anything,” she told the Telegraph in 2009. "The last couple of years have been a write-off, though I’m beginning to feel like a person now. My energy is coming back. Shit happens. I ought to pull myself together a bit.”
Almost every woman in the world has read the coming-of-age book, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and was directly influenced by Judy Blume’s work. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, Blume made her announcement to the world via her blog and gave us a (very Blume-like) play-by-play of her inner monologue through the entire experience from diagnosis through to chemotherapy. “Wait – me? There’s no breast cancer in my family (recent extensive genetic testing shows no genetic connection),” Blume wrote. “I haven’t eaten red meat in more than 30 years. I’ve never smoked, I exercise every day, forget alcohol—it’s bad for my reflux—I’ve been the same weight my whole adult life. How is this possible? Well, guess what—it’s possible.”
Kathy Bates, known for playing the strongest and most undefeatable characters, has not only beat cancer once—but twice. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 she won her first battle with the disease, but then doctors discovered a tumor in her left breast nine years later. She chose to receive a double mastectomy to prevent the cancer from retuning. “I wasn't going to fool around; I had a double mastectomy. Breast cancer runs like a river through my family,” she told AARP last year. "My mother and niece had it; my aunt died of it. Even if you test negative [for genetic mutations that predispose you to cancer]—like I did—you can't assume you're okay.”
Red carpet darling and E! News star Giuliana Rancic was diagnosed with breast cancer after her doctor suggested a mammogram before her third round of in vitro fertilization treatments. Only 36 in 2011, she initially chose to go through a lumpectomy before ultimately deciding on a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to treat the disease. "Bill was everything. My husband was everything throughout the process—from getting diagnosed 'til today," she told CBS last year. "And I don't know how I would have done it without him. I can't even imagine having gone through breast cancer without having an incredible person by my side to help me through it." Today Rancic gives back by raising money for breast cancer research through different charities and organizations.