In 2020 in the United States alone, the American Cancer Society estimates about 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women and about 42,170 women will die from the disease. Not only is it the second leading cause of cancer death, but there’s a one in eight chance that a woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime in the United States.
To raise awareness of the wide-reaching effects, the first breast cancer awareness campaign started as a weeklong event in the United States in October 1985 to educate people on the disease. Now extended for the entire month as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it has grown into an international effort to raise awareness about prevention and early detection, as well as the harrowing effects of the diagnosis. While men can also get breast cancer, with about 2,620 invasive cases and 520 deaths estimated this year, it’s less common.
But progress is being made. According to an American Cancer Society report in October 2019, breast cancer death rates are down 40 percent since 1989.
Here, we look at some of the notable women who have fought the disease:
In July 2007, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts was doing a self-exam and immediately had an instinct. “Because I was familiar with my body and the lumps, I knew this one felt different. It was in a different place on my breast, and it was hard,” she told Prevention in 2011. “If I hadn't been doing self-exams, I wouldn't have known that.”
After battling breast cancer, she was thrown another life-threatening diagnosis: Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), requiring a bone marrow transplant. Thankfully her sister Sally-Ann was a match and donated stem cells that saved Roberts' life. Now every year on September 20 — the date of her transplant in 2012 — she celebrates her “birthday.” “I had a choice: let my illnesses define me and give into my difficult circumstances, or embrace my experience as a ‘rebirth,’” she wrote in 2018. “I refused to look back, and only looked forward. Like many others, I chose to thrive, not just survive.”
Even though Grease actress Olivia Newton-John’s mammogram came back negative, something told her it wasn’t quite right. “I had a small lump and it hurt,” she told the Susan G. Komen organization. “My doctor was persistent — we both had a feeling. We did the biopsy and I found out that I had breast cancer, the same weekend my father died.”
Since her 1982 diagnosis, she’s now battled cancer three times — in her shoulder in 2013 and stage 4 breast cancer that spread to her back, including a tumor at her spine's base, in 2018. But in February 2020, she told the Australian talk show The Project that she was “doing really well” and said she believed she no longer had stage 4 cancer.
For the actress/singer, it’s all about positive thinking. “If somebody tells you, you have six months to live, very possibly you will because you believe that,” she told 60 Minutes Australia. “So for me, psychologically, it's better not to have any idea of what they expect, or what the last person that has what you have lived, so I don't tune in. It’s just better for me.”
At the 2017 Emmys, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus set a record, winning her sixth Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series statue for Veep. The very next morning, she found out she had stage 2 breast cancer. “I have a different kind of view of my life now, having seen that edge — that we’re all going to see at some point, and which, really, as a mortal person you don’t allow yourself to consider, ever,” she told The New Yorker, admitting she was “to-my-bones terrified.”
She went through six rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. While the show did go on hiatus, she continued doing table reads with her costars. “It kept me hopeful, and I could focus on work instead of…trying to stay alive,” she told InStyle in February 2020. While she’s successfully battled the disease, she admits there’s always a fear inside. “I’m still working it out, to be honest with you,” she told Vanity Fair in 2019. “I’m glad I got through it, but there’s a part of me that’s still a little frightened.”
Fashion designer Betsey Johnson was always careful when she got a massage since she was “always scared” that her breast implants might pop, she told People in 2019. When her fear turned into reality, with her left one deflating, she decided to get it taken out. “When they took that thing out it was exactly like an old, corroded portobello mushroom,” she told the magazine. But then she found something else. “I was like, ‘What is this hard-as-a-rock pea going on there?’ which I never would have discovered if the implant hadn’t deflated.”
She kept the 1999 diagnosis to herself. “I kept it completely private — we were coming out of the HIV/AIDS stigma for so many years and for me it sort of overlapped,” she said in an interview, according to The Washington Post. “The biggest fear I had was that people were going to worry about my business, my health and whether I was going to live or die.” Now she’s an outspoken advocate, selling survivor t-shirts and even hot pink panties.
Just a year after the Married… With Children actress Christina Applegate’s return to television in 2007’s Samantha Who?, she was diagnosed at the age of 36 in 2008. Her initial instinct was not to tell anyone. “It's hard to live quietly,” she said. “I went through five weeks of work without telling anyone that this was going on in my life.”
Her mom was a breast cancer survivor, so Applegate started getting mammograms routinely at the age of 30. Since her breasts were dense, her doctors suggested an MRI in 2007. Thankfully it was caught early, but still, she decided to get a bilateral mastectomy. “It was one of those things that I woke up and it felt so right,” she continued.
In 2017, she took further action to prevent cancer, this time having her ovaries and tubes removed since she had a cousin who passed away from ovarian cancer. “That’s how I’ve taken control of everything,” she told TODAY. “It’s a relief. That’s one other thing off the table. Now, let’s hope I don’t get hit by a bus.”
When Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon was 12, her mother battled and survived breast cancer. “I always sort of thought, ‘I’m probably going to get breast cancer. There's a really good chance,’” she told Nightline.
After a routine mammogram, her gynecologist broke the news to her in 2006. “I felt scared. … I thought, ‘Oh, I don't want this to be happening.’ I was very cognizant of if it's going to happen, this is the best way for it to happen, that it's found so early and we can just get right on it,” she said. Now she’s an advocate, who has also been a Susan G. Komen spokesperson. “The only thing to really be afraid of is if you don't go get your mammograms, because there's some part of you that doesn't want to know, and that's the thing that's going to trip you up. That's the thing that could have a really bad endgame."
When Good Morning America’s Amy Robach was asked to have her first mammogram on air live in October 2013 for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she was tempted to say no. After all, she was only 40 and didn’t have any family history of the disease. But then Roberts said something to her that would change her life: “I can pretty much guarantee it will save a life.”
What Robach didn’t realize was that the life would be her own. Weeks later, she announced that she had tested positive — and eventually went eight rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. She’s documented her journey in her 2015 book Better: How I Let Go of Control, Held On to Hope and Found Joy in My Darkest Hour.
“It’s one thing to physically battle cancer — it’s grueling and tests your body in ways you cannot imagine — but it’s another thing altogether to mentally take it on,” she wrote. “I’m not saying cancer is a gift — because if it was I would gladly return it — but now that the box has been opened, so have my eyes and my heart.”
With 18 tennis Grand Slam titles, Martina Navratilova never thought she'd fall victim to physical ailments. “I’m this healthy person, I've been healthy all my life, and all of a sudden I have cancer, are you kidding me?” she said on Good Morning America in 2010, just a couple months after her diagnosis of non-invasive breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
After undergoing a lumpectomy on March 25, 2010, she began radiation on May 12 and on June 5 of that year, she won the senior women’s doubles at the French Open. And she’s using her voice as a tennis legend to encourage other women to not sit by idly. “The reason I wanted to speak about this is to encourage these women to have mammograms,” she said on Good Morning America. “I just want to encourage women to have that yearly check-up.”
When Three’s Company star Suzanne Somers was headlining her own show in Las Vegas in 2001, she made sure to get her annual mammogram. She remembers the energy in the room changing and soon learning she had a 2.4-centimeter tumor in her right breast. “When you hear those three words, ‘You have cancer’ — wow — that’s coming face to face with your mortality,” she told Yahoo! Life in 2018. “You never think that you’re not here forever.”
But she also found some irony in it. “I believe this happened to me because I was a sex symbol — whatever that is,” she added, thinking that status could help bring light to the issue. She had a lumpectomy and radiation and chose alternative medicine over chemotherapy. “This made me appreciate health in a way that I never did before. I believe I’m going to be here until 120 years or longer because of the way I take care of myself.”
After she found out she had cancer in 1997, singer-songwriter Carly Simon didn’t talk about it much. “The idea of people stopping me on the street to say, ‘I'm so sorry,’ is kind of a downer,” she told the New York Daily News in 1998 as she was undergoing chemotherapy, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I'm doing fine. The less explaining I have to do, the more energy I have to take care of myself.”
She found that knowledge of her diagnosis changed people’s perception of her. “There’s a bigger story about the breast cancer than the cancer. It’s about relationships,” she told Reuters in 2012. “I wasn’t treated well…It was like I was the disappearing woman. When I went to the Grammys that year, I noticed how many people avoided me. There were a lot of people who were just not looking at me. It was the first time I was out in public since I’d been diagnosed.” She found her solace working on projects like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films and says everything eventually “smoothed over because people are smart and don’t want you to be hurt.”
Leave it to comedian Wanda Sykes to find humor in how she learned of her diagnosis when she went in for a breast reduction surgery: “I had real big boobs and I just got tired of knocking over stuff. Every time I eat ... Oh lord. I'd carry a Tide stick everywhere I go. My back was sore so it was time to have a reduction," she said in 2011.
But the results that came back from the lab work were serious. She found that she had DCIS in her left breast. “I was very, very lucky because DCIS is basically stage-zero cancer,” she continued. With a history of breast cancer on her maternal side of the family, she decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. “I had both breasts removed ... because now I have zero chance of having breast cancer,” she said. “It sounds scary up front, but what do you want? Do you want to wait and not be as fortunate when it comes back and it's too late?”
Feminist trailblazing journalist Gloria Steinem first spoke publicly about her cancer in 1988, but she had already been battling the disease since her 1986 diagnosis. “I was less afraid of dying than of aging — or not of aging, exactly,” she told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2016. “I didn't know how to enter the last third of life because there were so few role models... It was like falling off a cliff because I couldn't see enough people ahead of me.”
But it also made her pause and reprioritize. “The cancer served a real purpose, making me a little bit more conscious of time,” she said.
Lifetime has proudly supported breast cancer research for over 25 years. Get information on mammograms during COVID-19, read personal breast cancer stories, watch thriver videos, find resources and more by visiting mylifetime.com/stopbreastcancer.