The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies breast cancer as the world’s most prevalent form of cancer. According to WHO, 2.3 million women were battling breast cancer globally in 2020 and 685,000 died from it. The data says that there were 7.8 million women alive at the end of 2020 who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years.
The WHO notes that the mortality rate of breast cancer has not changed much from the 1930s through the 1970s. However, improvement in medical science has led to an increase in the rate of survival since the 1980s in some countries.
Any woman at any age after puberty can develop breast cancer. Those who have a history of cancer in their family, consume excessive alcohol, suffer from obesity, or are exposed to radiation are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer. However, those who are perfectly healthy can be affected by it as well. Early detection goes a long way in helping the chances of winning the breast cancer battle.
Many celebrities have survived breast cancer and continue to tell the story of their grit. It was a harrowing time for all of them, but these women overcame their fear and are now an inspiration to those who are suffering from breast cancer.
On 17 May, 2005, the Australian pop legend revealed that she had breast cancer. Minogue was 36 years old at the time. She had to postpone her Showgirl tour and immediately begin treatment. She underwent lumpectomy and chemotherapy. In February 2006, Minogue defeated cancer.
Two years later, at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Minogue revealed she had initially been misdiagnosed and cancer was detected only when she went for a second opinion.
“So my message to all of you and everyone at home is, because someone is in a white coat and using big medical instruments, doesn’t necessarily mean they are right… If you have any doubt, go back again,” she said.
Her revelation led to a rise in screening and media awareness about breast cancer. A study by Australian researchers in September 2005 found that news coverage rose 20 times and overall bookings for mammography rose 40 percent within two weeks of Minogue’s revelation.
In a Twitter post on 28 September, 2017, the Veep (2012-2019) actress revealed she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“One in eight women get breast cancer. Today, I’m the one,” read her statement, adding, “The good news is that I have the most glorious group of supportive and caring family and friends, and fantastic insurance through my union. The bad news is that not all women are so lucky, so let’s fight all cancers and make universal health care a reality.”
Just when you thought… pic.twitter.com/SbtYChwiEj
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) September 28, 2017
Louis-Dreyfus came to know of her cancer a day after she won the sixth Emmy for Veep. The win made her the actor with the most Emmys for a single role.
She recovered from her stage II breast cancer after undergoing a double mastectomy and six chemotherapy rounds. In October 2018, Louis-Dreyfus appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where the actress said that she was cancer-free.
“What we went through last year was horrific. Her strength, just now, is coming back. It takes about a year,” her mother told The New Yorker.
Using social media, Louis-Dreyfus kept her fans up-to-date with her cancer treatment. Throughout her illness, she said, her family and friends were a constant support.
The nine-time Grammy award winner was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. The cancer was at stage I and was detected via a routine mammogram. But Crow, who was 44 at the time, didn’t let the disease impact her usual life.
She wrote on her website, “Approximately one in seven American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and more than 2m Americans are living with breast cancer today. I am joining the more than 200,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.”
She underwent surgery followed by seven weeks of radiation therapy. By August the same year, she was free from cancer.
Speaking at Larry King Live in August, she said, “But what has been interesting for me is, since I have been diagnosed, and am now a cancer survivor, I have had so many young people come up to me and talk about their experience with cancer under the age of 30, two- and three-time cancer survivors.”
In 2020, she told Health that the ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) diagnosis made her realise to take care of herself first — a lesson she believes all women should learn.
“With your diagnosis comes a lesson, and for women who’ve shared their lesson with me, it’s almost always the same. Women are overachievers. We take care of the people around us while we work and do a thousand [other] things,” she said.
“I was a caretaker, and that was my challenge: to use my voice to explain what I needed and what I didn’t need—and say no and listen to my body,” Crow added.
The 73-year-old legendary British-Australian singer-actress has been one of the leading figures in cancer awareness and research.
Best known for her performance in the 1978 film Grease, Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. In 2013, after a car accident, she discovered that she had cancer in her shoulder. Four years later, she was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. But Newton-John has proved that she is a survivor with true grit.
In August 2019, she told ET, “I just want everyone to know, I’m here, I’m doing great. I’m doing really well and I’m really healthy.”
Following her recovery, Newton-John told The Guardian in October 2020, “Three times lucky, right? I’m going to look at it like that.” Her words revealed that the secret behind her defeating cancer each time was her outlook on life.
Newton-John has been using her music to fund cancer research and awareness for a long time. Her album Gaia: One Woman’s Journey (1994) was about her 1992 ordeal.
In 2008, she founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Later, she launched the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund with husband John Easterling to support research on plant medicine for cancer.
The four-time Grammy award winner has also supported Dancers Against Cancer, an organisation that supports cancer-affected dancers and their families.
Newton-John was honoured with the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2019. The same year, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her work as an entertainer and cancer campaigner.
The renowned actor and climate activist told British Vogue in 2019 that she had a “lot of cancer”.
“I was a sun-worshipper. When I have a day off, I frequently go to my skin doctor and have things cut off me by a surgeon,” she said.
She revealed that she had undergone mastectomy before the 2016 Golden Globe Awards, where she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Youth.
At the ceremony, she wore a white Yves Saint Laurent couture gown. Referring to the dress, she said, “I get out of the car and I have the strange white dress with all the ruffles? That’s because I’d just had a mastectomy and I had to cover my bandages.”
In 2010, she had written on her Internet blog, “I had a scare with a non-invasive breast cancer but it is ALL OUT NOW!!!”
At the time, she had undergone a mammogram when a small cancerous tumour was discovered. Following a surgery to remove the tumour, her publicist said that she is “100 percent cancer-free”.
The 83-year-old had removed a cancerous growth from her lower lip. It was revealed when she visited NBC’s Today during promotions of the fourth season of Grace and Frankie in 2018.
The Good Morning America co-host on ABC was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She discovered she had cancer after finding a lump in her right breast during a self-exam. Though the mammogram result was okay, an ultrasound revealed the tumour following which, a biopsy detected cancer.
She underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to recover from it.
However, the aggressiveness of the therapies resulted in her developing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) five years later. MDS is a rare blood disorder that affects the bone marrow.
“I have no regrets whatsoever that I received the treatment that I did because it saved my life. It is unfortunate that I had the really, really rare experience of finding that the treatment that saved my life had later put it in peril,” Roberts told Cure Today in 2018 about her MDS diagnosis.
She said that she suffered tremendous weight loss and was “barely over 100 pounds (45 kg)” because of MDS. Her sister, Sally-Ann Roberts, donated bone marrow cells for transplant, which greatly helped in the journalist’s recovery.
In 2012, the week when Roberts revealed her MDS diagnosis, the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match Registry witnessed a rise of 1,800 percent in potential donors.
Roberts received a Peabody Award for Robin’s Journey the same year. In its citation, Peabody noted the award was given to Roberts “for stepping through a door that could have been closed by fear, for recognising an opportunity rather than focusing on personal danger, and for contributing to the potential for saving thousands of lives.”
According to Roberts, friends, family members, doctors, nurses and anyone around for help is good for those suffering from cancer.
“Quiet time or meditation is also important, because it’s as much mental as physical when you’re going through this. I liked watching comedies and just trying to keep a lightness. What really helped was maintaining my optimism. Optimism is a muscle that gets stronger with use,” she said.
Applegate had to undergo a double mastectomy in July 2008 after cancer was detected in one of her breasts. The actress, who won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for Friends in 2003, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak about her recovery following the operation.
“It doesn’t feel the same, and it’s hard to carry your purse,” she said, adding, “I cry at least once a day about it because it’s hard to overlook it when you’re standing there in the mirror. When you look down, it’s the first thing you see… So you’re reminded constantly of this thing — this cancer thing that you had.”
Applegate, who was 36 at the time, also revealed that her mother, too, underwent mastectomy in the 1970s, and because “they didn’t do a very good job back then,” she was worried about her surgery. Back then, Grammy award winner Melissa Etheridge was among those who supported and encouraged her. Etheridge is herself a breast cancer survivor.
In 2009, Applegate, who has been cancer-free since 2008, launched Right Action for Women (RAW), a charitable organisation that financially supports those in need of MRI or other related tests besides spreading awareness about breast cancer.
Steinem learned about her breast cancer in 1986. She was 52 years old. The iconic feminist and political activist has remained cancer-free since undergoing treatment, including lumpectomy and radiation therapy.
In 1992, she told Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air that she was more afraid of ageing than dying. When she came to know about the diagnosis, her concern was that there were so few role models (to look up to).
“I was less afraid of dying than of ageing — or not of ageing, exactly. I didn’t know how to enter the last third of life because there were so few role models because when I first heard this diagnosis, first, I thought, ironically, oh, so that’s how it’s going to end, you know? And then I thought to myself, as if it was welling up from the deepest part of me, I’ve had a wonderful life. And I treasure that moment. You know, it meant a lot to me,” she said.
The illustrious English actress has been one of the very best since she started her professional career in the 1950s. Over the decades, she has notched up multiple Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Emmys and one Tony Award. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1990 and a Companion of Honour (CH) in 2014.
In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience was gruelling for the then 74-year-old, who said following her recovery next year that she was contemplating leaving the theatre.
“It leaves you so flattened. I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work, although film work is more tiring. I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I feel very uncertain. I haven’t done it for a while,” Smith was quoted as saying by The Times.
She added that it was perhaps her age that made it longer for her to recover.
Yet, while she was undergoing treatment in 2009, Smith gallantly continued filming for Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, in which she played Professor Minerva McGonagall, and From Time To Time.
Since recovering from cancer, Smith did not appear in the theatre till the 2019 play A German Life at London’s Bridge Theatre. She starred in the role of Brunhilde Pomsel, personal secretary to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, in the one-woman play.
Smith has continued acting in television serials and movies. Among her most notable works since defeating cancer are Downton Abbey (2010-15) and its film versions besides the movie The Lady in the Van (2015).
The two-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. Etheridge discovered she had cancer while taking a shower during a tour of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada.
Speaking to Alanna Nash of AARP The Magazine in 2014, she said that the lump in her breast was large and it knocked at her long family history of cancer.
“That little voice in the back of my head started going, ‘Is it cancer? Your father died of cancer. Your aunt died of cancer. Your grandmother. Your mother had cancer. Your cousin. Cancer. Cancer.’ You just can’t quiet the voice,” she said.
She had to undergo lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy, which left her weakened and without hair. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge took the brave decision of performing the song “Piece of My Heart” with Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin.
When asked if she was afraid, Etheridge told Entertainment Weekly in 2018, “I was. I asked Rosie O’Donnell. She came to visit me and I said, ‘What do you think?’ She goes, ‘Missy’ — she always calls me Missy — ‘go bald, you should go bald.’ I asked Steven Spielberg, actually. He’s a good friend of mine. He came and I said, ‘Do you think I should put a scarf on?’ He goes, ‘No. You walk out there proud. You’re beautiful.’ My surgeon literally said to me, ‘You’re going to want to get a wig because nobody wants to see a bald rock star.’ And so after the Grammys, I had an appointment with her. I came and she went, ‘Okay, I was wrong.’”
With her performance at the Grammy — her first since her diagnosis — she became a champion in the eyes of the audiences present at the ceremony as well as people around the world.
The Sopranos (1999-2007) star was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in 2003.
Talking to Health.com in 2011, Falco, who played the iconic role of Carmela Soprano, said that she hid her diagnosis from the cast of the series “because well-meaning people would have driven me crazy asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ I would have wanted to say, ‘I’m scared, I don’t feel so good, and my hair is falling out.’”
In 2019, she spoke about her diagnosis at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, California, US.
She said that when she received the news in the afternoon, she had to be at work. “You go into some sort of hyper-reality,” she said about her reaction to the news.
Falco underwent chemotherapy but the cancer went into remission the year after her diagnosis.
Initially, Falco remained concerned. “I was relieved, of course, but it was also strangely depressing. As long as you’re showing up at a cancer hospital every week, you know someone has an eye on you. When they say ‘OK, good luck,’ it occurs to you you’re really on your own, and it’s a bit nerve-racking,” she told Health.com.
Falco taught herself to be strong and has since remained healthy and even more successful in both life and career. She began practising Buddhism and adopted two children.
Remembering the women who died of similar diagnoses while she survived, Falco said at the Brainstorm Health conference, “How could you not be grateful?”
On 12 September, 2012, the Academy Award winner took to Twitter to reveal her breast cancer diagnosis and that she had undergone a double mastectomy.
“Hey All, sorry for the long silence. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 months ago & am recovering from a double mastectomy. I don’t miss my breasts as much as I miss Harry’s Law. 😉 Thanks for all the sweet tweets. Y’all kept me going,” she wrote in two tweets.
(1/2) Hey All, sorry for the long silence. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 months ago & am recovering from a double mastectomy.
— Kathy Bates (@MsKathyBates) September 12, 2012
(2/2) I don’t miss my breasts as much as I miss Harry’s Law. 😉 Thanks for all the sweet tweets. Y’all kept me going.
— Kathy Bates (@MsKathyBates) September 12, 2012
The surgery also removed 19 lymph nodes and left Bates in a lot of pain. Though the pain subsided eventually, the double mastectomy resulted in lymphedema — an incurable ailment caused by the removal or damage to lymph nodes. She had to thus undergo physical therapy and food restrictions, which, along with weight loss, has helped her body.
In 2019, she told Survivornet about her fury upon discovering that her lymph nodes had been removed.
“I was bitter, I was depressed. I thought my career was over, I thought, ‘There’s no way, I’m done, everything is done,’” she said.
Bates is a double cancer survivor. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 and underwent chemotherapy. Even though she recovered, it was a difficult time for her.
“It was like detoxing. I was shaking, I couldn’t talk, and I remember I had to go do a voiceover and it was just so, so difficult,” she told Survivornet.
Bates is on the honorary board of the Lymphatic Education and Research Network and is its national spokesperson.
(Main and Featured images: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP)