Celebs You Want on Your Cancer Support Team
Cancer affects the whole family and can change the trajectory of not just one life, but many — even when loved ones see cancer go into remission. There are new priorities. New lifestyles. Relationships are tested — and, with luck, come out stronger in the end.
Here, celebrities share how a cancer diagnosis transformed the families they were born into and the families they chose to have. And their wise words might be exactly what you need when facing a similar situation.
Christina Applegate was no stranger to cancer, as a daughter of a cancer survivor — her mother, the actress Nancy Priddy, was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38. But Applegate still didn’t believe the same thing would happen to her at age 36.
After being diagnosed early in one breast via MRI in spring 2008, Applegate was tested for the BRCA genes that greatly increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It was positive. She quickly underwent a preventative double mastectomy. In 2017, after the birth of her daughter, Sadie, Applegate also had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
As part of her battle with cancer, Applegate transformed her lifestyle, eating clean and doing her best to manage stress. She also founded Right Action for Women, to help at-risk women pay for life-saving MRI screenings and testing.
On how holding her newborn daughter on her chest helped her heal emotionally from losing her breasts to cancer: “It was such a liberating and beautiful moment. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter anymore. Not only was she the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me — but she saved me, too. I got to abandon resentments that I’ve held on to in that vicinity for years because [my chest] is where she feels the most comfortable and where she’s the happiest.”
On the pain of knowing her daughter may have the same fate: “The chances that my daughter is BRCA positive are very high. I look at her and feed her the cleanest foods. I try to keep her stress levels down. I’m doing everything I can on my end, knowing that in 20 years, she’ll have to start getting tested. Hopefully, by then, there will be advancements. It breaks my heart to think that’s a possibility.”
They call it the Angelina Jolie Effect — the spike in genetic tests for BRCA genes after Angelina Jolie went public in 2013 with her preventative double mastectomy. Jolie knew of her cancer risk — and the pain of a child losing a parent to the disease. “My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56,” she wrote in a now-famous op-ed in The New York Times.
Her aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother also died of breast and ovarian cancers. In the op-ed, Jolie detailed her procedures and the decision-making process. Two years later, after a routine check showed elevated inflammatory markers that could indicate early ovarian cancer, Jolie had her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed as well — and again wrote about it in The Times.
At age 70, actress Olivia Newton-John is in her third battle against breast cancer, now at stage IV (the cancer has since metastasized to her sacrum — and is incurable). Newton-John was first diagnosed in 1992. At the time, she underwent a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and embraced alternative therapies like herbs and meditation. She went on to found the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia, where cancer research and treatment are coupled with wellness programs.
In 2013, the cancer returned and again four years later. Newton-John credits alternative therapies, positive thinking — and cannabis — for her ability to persevere. John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Company and Newton-John’s husband since 2009, grows cannabis on their Santa Barbara, California, ranch and makes tinctures to help Newton-John’s cancer symptoms, including pain, trouble sleeping and anxiety.
Robert De Niro
Actor Robert De Niro, known for his tough-guy roles in movies like "Goodfellas," is also a 15-plus-year cancer survivor. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 at the age of 60, De Niro was treated in New York and kept his diagnosis fairly private.
He credited routine check-ups — specifically the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) screening test that's recommended for men starting at age 55 — for early detection and his ability to make a full recovery.
Unfortunately, a few years after receiving treatment, he was sued by an insurance company due to the fact that his work on the movie, "Hide and Seek," was delayed four months and that the actor "misrepresented his health status," costing the production company and therefore the insurance company a significant amount of money. But the judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the claims were dropped.
DeNiro's lawyer, Robyn Crowther, defending him on the realities of a cancer diagnosis timeline: "One day you don’t have cancer, and the next day, you get diagnosed and you do, and [the date he signed his health certificate] happened to be in the middle of those couple of days."
Early detection was a gift for comedian Wanda Sykes. While going in for a breast reduction, doctors discovered Sykes had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in her left breast. “I was very, very lucky, because DCIS is basically stage 0 cancer,” Sykes later told Ellen DeGeneres on her daytime show.
Sykes made the choice to undergo the most aggressive treatment — a double mastectomy — because of the cancer history in her family. (Some DCIS cases do become invasive breast cancer, and some do not; the medical community is split on Sykes’ choice.)
Giuliana Rancic of "E! News" was preparing for a third round of IVF when, after a routine mammogram, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 36 and had no family history. Ultimately, she chose to have a double mastectomy and to change her plans to grow a family via surrogate.
Two years later in 2012, she and husband Bill Rancic welcomed their son, Duke. In the end, the timing of her diagnosis was somewhat of a blessing. Had Giuliana become pregnant, the particular type of cancer she had would have advanced even faster.
Giuliana on how she got through tough treatment: “I found myself in this position a lot — in a robe in the hospital, with Bill by my side. I just can't imagine what I would have done without Bill by my side. It was very, very important to still appreciate the good things in my life.”
Bill on his role: “It was a very emotional time. But the most important role is to be the one who can help make decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion.”
Giuliana on the lack of resources for caregivers: “There isn't a lot for the people helping the woman with breast cancer. The husband, the partner, the parents, the friends, whoever is going to be the caregiver is really on their own and has no idea what they are about to do. Thank God that, with Bill, whether I have a sore throat or I'm going through a double mastectomy, he is just nurturing.”
Singer Sheryl Crow was 44 when she was diagnosed with DCIS during a routine mammogram. The disease was caught early, and after a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation, in 2006, she was declared cancer-free. Still, the cancer was a shock. Crow had no family history or major risk factors, was healthy and ate well. The experience turned her into an advocate for early detection.
“So, I'm constantly out on this [campaign] about making sure women are diligent about getting their yearly mammograms because that's the way my cancer was detected, and luckily so, at stage I,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
It also encouraged her to become an adoptive single mother to sons Wyatt, adopted in 2007, and Levi, adopted in 2010.
On how her cancer diagnosis helped her realize what was important: “I very quickly learned who was really there in my life and who was just kind of on the outskirts of it when it was good for them or convenient for them. And it cut right through to the people that are most important in my life … it really shows you who your true blue friends are that are around you.”
On how battling cancer helped her decide to adopt: “It made me want to start a family. I had a picture in my head of what family was supposed to look like, but I didn’t take into account that I’ve had a nice life — I’ve been all over the world. I’ve played music for people who don’t even speak my language. So, after I completed my treatment, I decided to quit limiting my life to the story of ‘you fall in love, you get married, you have kids’ and start the adoption process.”
So much of the Osbournes’ lives played out on the MTV reality show, “The Osbournes” — including Sharon Osbourne’s battle with stage III colon cancer at age 49. She was diagnosed in 2002 and underwent two surgeries and chemotherapy.
After testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, Sharon had a preventive double mastectomy in 2012. At Sharon’s urging, Kelly Osbourne was also tested and, as of February 2020, is planning to eventually have her ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer.
On how Ozzy Osbourne stayed with her during treatment: “He slept in a chair by the side of my bed for 18 months. He was scared that if he closed his eyes for a moment, I would be dead when he opened them. He would carry me to the bathroom when I wet myself because of the medication, then shower me and put me back to bed. When my hair was falling out, he would pick it out of my food. There was no disgust there because he loves me unconditionally, just as I do him."
Kelly Osbourne on how Ozzy helped inspire Sharon’s recovery with laughter: “Mom was lying in this bedroom that she had curtained off. It was pitch black. She hadn’t gotten out of bed for like a week ... And we couldn’t get her to go back to finish the chemo. Dad said laughter is the best medicine. And organized for Robin [Williams] to come over and make Mom laugh. And he just dropped everything. Came over to the house. Got in bed with Mom. I just remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs, and we went from crying, not knowing what to do, to peeing ourselves laughing because we could hear Mom upstairs in her room laughing with Robin. The next day it changed everything, and Mom went back to chemo.”
Hugh Jackman was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2013 and has since had at least six procedures. After one of those procedures, back in 2017, he told Kelly Ripa, "It's a basal cell carcinoma. Everything's fine. It is skin cancer but the least dangerous form of it.”
Jackman credits his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, for urging him to get a mark on his nose checked by a doctor.
On what to look for: “ “Most people want to know what a skin cancer looks like. And I always say, ‘If you get a growth, a lump or a bump or something that looks a little odd to you, get it checked. See a dermatologist. Get a biopsy when warranted.”
“Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts beat breast cancer in 2007. Five years later, it was cancer again — but this time, a rare and often fatal blood disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS. “Breast cancer, you kinda know what that is, and you know people who've gone through it,'' she told WebMD. ''I didn't know anyone who had MDS.”
In need of a bone marrow transplant, each of her three siblings was tested. One — Sally-Ann — was a match, and Roberts has been cancer free since the transplant.
Rita Wilson is perhaps better known as an actress, or the actress married to Tom Hanks, but she is also a singer. And her latest album release, “Halfway to Home,” was inspired by her battle with breast cancer — specifically, invasive lobular carcinoma.
Wilson was diagnosed in April 2015 and underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. By December of that year, she declared herself “100 percent healthy.” She credits getting a second opinion with saving her life.
On how cancer can strengthen a marriage: “Who knew it would make you even closer? You never know how your spouse is going to react in a situation like this. I was so amazed, so blown away by the care my husband gave me. It was such a normal, intimate time.”
Tom Hanks’ down-to-earth approach to taking care of his wife: “You just clear the decks and you circle the wagons and you hunker down. It’s not that hard to do. It’s like when there’s a big rainstorm outside, you bust out the hot cocoa and make sure everyone is comfortable.”
Tom Hanks on caring for the caregivers: “No one should go through this alone. That not only goes for the person who is carrying it and in bed for a very long time, but there's also the people who love them.”
“I had my biopsy at 8 in the morning,” the actress Edie Falco told Parade. “Within two hours, I knew I had [breast] cancer. Then, at 1 p.m., I had to be on the set of ‘The Sopranos.’”
It was 2004, and Falco had recently turned 40. During her eight months of treatment, which she kept mostly private, she never missed a day of work. “Surviving cancer has a way of making you reprioritize,” she wrote in Health — and shortly after, she adopted son, Anderson, in 2005 and daughter, Macy, in 2008.
On cancer giving her the clarity she needed to start a family: “In the spring of 2004, when I was given a clean bill of health, I had one of those moments of clarity where all questions and debates just fall away. The direction was clear: I didn't have to wait for the right man or to be more ready or to have more money or a bigger apartment. It was time for me to start a family on my own.”
Actress Fran Drescher has been cancer-free for 20 years as of June 2020, and she celebrated by hosting an hour-long virtual cabaret to raise money for her nonprofit, Cancer Schmancer — you have to love that name! — which helps save lives through prevention and early detection.
At age 42 in 2000, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had to undergo a radical hysterectomy. She tributes her organic diet to maintaining good health throughout the years.
On her healthy lifestyle: "I treat myself as well and lovingly as possible. I don't abuse myself. I honor my body all the time. I honor, I listen to it. I make sure that I appreciate what's going on around me."
In "Sex and the City," the character, Samantha, battles breast cancer, but it's actress Cynthia Nixon who had this experience play out in real life.
She was diagnosed in 2002 and kept her diagnosis very much under wraps while she sought treatment with a lumpectomy and radiation. Since then, she became an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to inspire women to get routine checkups and mammograms with their doctors.
On both her and her mother's breast cancer diagnoses: "As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, knowing my personal risk made me more aware and more empowered when I faced my own diagnosis."
Like fellow "Meet the Fockers" actor Robert De Niro (pictured here with actress Jessica Alba), Ben Stiller was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014 after taking a standard PSA test. The tumor was removed, and he's been cancer-free ever since.
He wrote about his experience very publically in a post on Medium in an effort to raise awareness about getting screened.
On taking the PSA test: "Taking the PSA test saved my life. Literally. That’s why I am writing this now. There has been a lot of controversy over the test in the last few years. Articles and op-eds on whether it is safe, studies that seem to be interpreted in many different ways, and debates about whether men should take it all. I am not offering a scientific point of view here, just a personal one, based on my experience. The bottom line for me: I was lucky enough to have a doctor who gave me what they call a 'baseline' PSA test when I was about 46."
Doctors diagnosed actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus with stage II breast cancer in 2017, and she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy to get rid of the disease.
She chose to share her cancer diagnosis with her nearly 1 million Twitter followers and received an overwhelmingly positive response.
On her outlook on life since battling cancer: “I’m still working it out, to be honest with you. I’m glad I got through it, but there’s a part of me that’s still a little frightened, you know?”
On returning to work: "It was wonderful to go back because frankly, it was a distraction from the prior year, which had been so harrowing. To put blinders on and just focus on making the funniest show possible was a great relief.”
Actress Shannen Doherty’s battle with cancer has played out quite publicly. She was first diagnosed in March 2015, and she spent two years in aggressive treatment that included chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, before announcing that she was in remission.
A year later, in May 2018, she announced she was undergoing another surgery. And in February 2020, she went public with the fact that her cancer is now at stage IV.
On how her husband, the photographer Kurt Iswarienko, helped her find strength at one of her lowest points: “A pivotal moment for me was when I was deathly ill from the chemo. They were worried about my organs shutting down because I couldn’t keep anything in. One time, I couldn’t lift my head, I couldn’t suck on an ice cube, I was done. And Kurt was crying, saying, ‘Please don’t leave me.’ I looked at him and thought, ‘I can’t do this to him.’ So, I dug deep, gathered everything up and charged forward again. Kurt and I got through one of the worst things a couple can go through, and we came out stronger.”
On why she didn't want to go public with her latest diagnosis: “I was scared that meant that I was never going to work again. I thought that people were going to be terrified to hire me. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it again; it’s people like us that actually need the work the most. Because it fuels us. And just because you have cancer doesn’t mean that you’re done.”