In honour of Pinktober, Instep takes a look at celebrities who have fought cancer in its various forms and inspired millions with their courage
October is breast cancer awareness month, dedicated worldwide to spreading knowledge and prevention techniques about a disease that affects 1 in 9 women and one that can be easily prevented through early detection. Instep brings you the inspiring stories of five well-known celebrity cancer survivors, who have publicly battled the disease and lived to tell the tale.
Often dubbed the ‘bad girl’ of Bollywood for her blunt manner and spunky attitude, Nepalese actress Manisha Koirala has always played by her own rules and refused to be dictated by society’s standards. Which is why, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, she fought back like a trooper and despite her deteriorating health over the next two years, she made her battle with the disease public to create awareness about cancer.
Post surgery and chemotherapy, the actress is now cancer-free and is determined to use her celebrity status and personal story to inspire others. In one of her first interviews after her recovery, Manisha said, "I have touched death with my illness. That phase has changed me. Today, every sunset, every handshake is valuable for me. But I do not want that to define me. I don’t want my illness to become social conversation. There is a big psychological pressure when you have cancer. There is always this fear of the disease coming back. If my position of being a celebrity helps the cause, I would surely do my bit. Fear exists every day of my life, but that has never stopped me from facing my demons. I want the cancer survivors, especially the women to stare back and ‘own up’ rather than ‘give up’. Let us not make cancer a life and death situation."
Manisha is currently working on a book detailing her life and her fight with cancer and is an outspoken champion for cancer survivors, lending her support to various NGOs and social causes. She has criticized Bollywood’s portrayal of victims of the disease, saying that it misguides the largely illiterate population of India and doesn’t create awareness. "In our films, they show that if you are suffering from cancer, then you have to die. Nobody has till now shown that you can deal with cancer and you can also survive for 30 to 40 years. That upsets me."
Another inspiring story to come out of Bollywood is that of Canadian-born actress, model and VJ Lisa Ray. The light-eyed beauty was diagnosed with a rare (and fatal) form of cancer, multiple myeloma, in 2009 and although initially hesitant to make her condition public, she has become a poster-girl for cancer survival in her six-year long battle with the debilitating disease.
A regular in ad campaigns for cancer survivors as well as an eloquent public speaker, the former model has reached out to those in a similar position and served as a source of inspiration.
"I was told not to go public with my disease," she has been quoted as saying. "The common practice for someone in my business is to go underground. First, you recover and maybe then, you go public about it. You don’t go public while you’re starting your treatment, because that has repercussions. I was invited to the Toronto International Film Festival, when I was two months into my treatment and taking steroids. I had gained about 18 kilos. I had to make a decision either to appear on the red carpet, lie about my appearance and hide my illness or go public. It was a challenge to announce my illness, because if I didn’t, they’d think I was in denial and if I did, it would be talked about a lot. I chose to hijack the moment and talk about something that forms a major part of me."
Lisa proudly displays her shaved head on her blog, where she has chronicled her battle with cancer, without sugar-coating the road to recovery yet providing a strong message of support to survivors, especially women. "There is a sense of accomplishment in defying society’s rules and that is why I got rid of my hair twice before my chemotherapy started. It was my way of telling society that I would define myself, not you," she writes.
The bubbly actress is known for making others laugh with performances in award-winning sitcoms such as Married… With Children and Samantha Who, so when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 36, she thought it was the universe playing a trick on her for laughs.
"I lay in my mother’s lap and just screamed and screamed," the actress revealed how she reacted when her oncologist told her the news over the phone. "Even though it ran in my family (Applegate’s mother is also a breast cancer survivor), I never in a million years thought it would happen to me. I was scared s**tless."
Since then, the actress has had a double mastectomy, braved the red carpet with aplomb and grace, had a beautiful baby daughter and most importantly, has become a champion for the rights of women at risk of breast cancer.
Christina’s condition was revealed not through a mammogram but a more thorough MRI, an expensive procedure that most women in the USA are unable to afford since it isn’t covered by insurance. In 2009, she launched Right Action for Women, a donation-based charitable organization that helps provide financial assistance for MRIs and other testing, as well as education for women who might be at high-risk for breast cancer.
The actress is also an outspoken supporter of going organic as a means of preventing the disease. "I think that the amount of women getting breast cancer has grown so exponentially. It’s growing at such a rapid pace and it’s getting into women who are much younger because of the environment and what is in our food. It’s not the cancer getting stronger; it’s that we are being poisoned. We have to really think about where our food is coming from. The hormones being put in the stuff we eat--all of that contributes to cancer."
The Australian superstar was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36 in 2005 right before a massive international tour. In its early stages, the cancer was removed through surgery and the pop diva underwent months of chemotherapy to recover. This year, she celebrated ten years of being cancer-free and recalled her traumatic experience in an interview to the media.
"It’s quite difficult to talk about it in interview situations because it’s deep and it’s long and it’s involved and it’s hard to really say what it was in a neat package," she said. "It’s pretty strange. It’s also amazing how many people are affected by cancer and it’s definitely something that stays with you and you have a lot to think about and your life changes. I feel very fortunate."
The singer has also spoken up about her initial misdiagnosis, when doctors told her she was "fine" and only a second check-up revealed the cancer. "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," she said during an appearance on The Ellen Show. Urging women to trust their instincts, she added, "If you have any doubt, go back again."
She’s a nine-time Grammy award winner and has sold more than 30 million albums during her career. A stellar career coupled with a strong physical fitness routine made Sheryl Crow feel she was "invincible". Hence the news that she suffered from invasive breast cancer left the rocker shocked. The diagnosis came during a period when Sheryl was going through a painful public break-up with Lance Armstrong and she says it forced her to take stock of her life.
"I was at my lowest and it set me on a course of wondering, ‘What does this all mean? What’s lacking from my life, and how did I get to this place?’ The diagnosis was a game changer. It forced me really to look at who I was and the line of people I took care of - I was at the bottom of my list and never said no to anybody."
The singer’s Stage 1 cancer was treated with a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation therapy. Following recovery, Sheryl has become one of the most vocal advocates for breast cancer awareness, using her celebrity status to shed light on the disease.
"It’s a really strange experience when you’re diagnosed with cancer and you’re in the public eye. I’ll be walking through an airport or getting a coffee when someone will walk up to me and say they are a breast cancer survivor or their mum’s going through it. It’s almost like a club where women share their stories. I got off easy as I was detected early, but the stories of bravery and loss are very empowering, humbling and inspiring," she says.