“Large are small, let’s save them all!” is just one of rallying cries of those who are fighting to make breast cancer a thing of the past. Pink has become October’s signature color as it hosts the annual campaign to increase awareness and ramp up efforts to defeat breast cancer. After lung cancer, it is the most common cause of death from cancer for women in the United States.
However, since 1989, the number of women who have died of breast cancer has steadily decreased. Medical advancements take much of the credit but spreading awareness about the risks and the need for testing has certainly played no small part in the fight.
Here is a look at five celebrities who have battled breast cancer and are raising awareness by sharing their stories:
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro experienced several huge personal misfortunes over the course of four months. First, she contracted pneumonia and the antibiotics she was prescribed led to the deadly bacterial infection Clostridium Dificile, commonly called C.diff. Second, she and her girlfriend broke up. Third, her mother died unexpectedly. And fourth, two weeks after her mother’s death, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in both of her breasts.
Only a few days after she received that news, Notaro distilled all of these tragic events into a raw stand-up act. She famously greeted the audience at the Los Angeles club Largo with: “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” As she delivered the news in her typical deadpan style, it took the crowd a little while to realize she wasn’t joking.
Louis CK praised the set on Twitter and put a recording of it on his website; it sold 75,000 copies in a week. Notaro subsequently underwent a double mastectomy and was declared cancer-free. She opted not to have reconstructive surgery—to which the audience at her November 2014 New York Comedy Festival performance at New York City’s Town Hall can attest.
As Notaro described being patted down by a TSA security agent—who refused to believe she was a woman because she didn't have breasts—she began to take off her blazer. She then took off her shirt and continued her set as if nothing had happened. By taking this bold action, Notaro seemed to be addressing the multi-faceted relationship women have with their bodies while simultaneously speaking to women who feel shame about losing their breasts after cancer.
In June 2007, while preparing a tribute to former ABC colleague Joel Siegel (who had been an advocate of early screening and prevention during his own battle with colon cancer) Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts performed a breast self-exam and found a lump. On July 17, after undergoing a biopsy, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
After quite a bit of soul searching, Roberts decided to make her struggle public, sharing many aspects of her journey with the GMA audience and generating a number of critically important informative segments on topics related to breast cancer for the morning news show. “My mom said, ‘Make your mess your message,’” Roberts says. “She helped show me that there are others who are going to benefit from [my story] and that the pain and discomfort I was going to go through would be minimal compared with the benefit I could bring to other people.”
Roberts endured a lumpectomy and a partial mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and six and a half weeks of radiation therapy. She tested negative for the BRCA gene mutation (those who carry it tend to have a higher incidence of getting breast cancer). Her treatments ended in the spring of 2008 and she spent the next five years monitoring her health with regular checkups. Then, she announced on air that she had developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disease that was caused by her cancer treatment.
That day, the website for Be the Match, a nonprofit organization that keeps a national bone marrow donation registry, experienced a huge spike in donors. In August 2011, Roberts took a leave of absence from Good Morning America. She got a bone marrow transplant from her sister, Sally-Ann Roberts, in September. On February 20, 2013, Roberts made her first appearance on Good Morning America since she had begun treatment. The world witnessed her emotional return and happy reunion with the Good Morning America staff.
Now in remission, Roberts has returned to GMA full-time where she continues to advocate for fighting cancer. In fact, in October 2013, she was instrumental in convincing her skeptical co-anchor Amy Robach (who protested that she had no family history of the disease) to have a mammogram live on-air as part in the morning show’s “GMA Goes Pink Day.” A month later, Robach stunned viewers when she confirmed that the televised mammogram had revealed that she had breast cancer.
In 2003, midway through filming a season of the hit HBO show, The Sopranos, award-winning actor Edie Falco was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. Falco said that along with the shock and fear, she also felt confused and extremely angry. A year earlier, she had alerted the clinic where she got her mammogram that she had felt a lump but they told her that some women have denser breast tissue, and that it was nothing. So when she felt it again, she went in and got a biopsy and it came back positive.
Falco only told her family and close friends, which included one of the show’s producers. Ilene Landress got Falco a Carmela wig and arranged her schedule around her chemo treatments. "It was perfect for me," says Falco. "The more I was able to just show up for my job, the more healthy I stayed. It was important for me to go through it privately."
After undergoing a lumpectomy, and getting a second opinion on which treatment options were best, Falco agreed to the traditional regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. She believes all patients need to decide for themselves what they are comfortable doing.
Falco said one of the things her battle with cancer has made her realize is how strong she is. “I am grateful for the opportunity to learn that about myself,” she said. “It takes a brave person to fight for their own life.”
In 2004, at age 43, two-time Grammy winner Melissa Etheridge discovered a lump in her left breast while she was on her summer concert tour. So she headed home to Los Angeles, where she got a biopsy and her doctor confirmed that the lump was cancer.
Etheridge had a lumpectomy remove the 4-centimeter tumor, but the surgeons also had to remove all 15 lymph nodes to make sure the cancer hadn't spread. She then went through five rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
While undergoing the brutal treatment, Etheridge found out her song “Breathe” (from her album Lucky) had been nominated for a Grammy. The organizers of the 2005 Grammy Awards also invited her to sing a song for their Janis Joplin tribute. Unwilling to pass up that chance, she agreed and gave a show-stopping performance. The image, and the exultant sound, of the bald rocker belting out “Piece of My Heart” became a symbol of the empowerment and the resilience possible for women in the face of breast cancer. "Every day someone comes up to me and says something about that performance," she said.
Etheridge also wrote a song dedicated to breast cancer survivors called "I Run for Life." She donates all of her royalties from that song to breast cancer charities. Now that she is cancer-free, her biggest advice to others on staying healthy is to focus on nutrition: "Eat your fruits and vegetables."
Ever since she was a teenager starring as Kelly Bundy on the hit television sitcom, Married with Children, actress Christina Applegate has been making audiences laugh. In 2007, she received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her starring role as the titular character on the acclaimed comedy series Samantha Who? Then, in April 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36.
As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, Applegate had been vigilant about getting regular mammograms since she was 30 years old. In 2007, her doctor recommended that she get an MRI due to the denseness of her breast tissue and the screening led to a biopsy of her left breast. Since the cancer was caught early on, the doctors prescribed six weeks of radiation instead of chemotherapy.
But then she received more life-changing news. A test for the BRCA gene — also known as the "breast cancer gene" — came back positive. Applegate made the dramatic decision to have a bilateral mastectomy. In July 2008, Christina went through with the surgery.
Applegate now looks at her health scare as a blessing. "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 says. "This is my opportunity now to go out and fight as hard as I can for early detection."
Applegate says she will fight for women to have access to MRIs and genetic testing, which many insurance companies won't pay for.