Written by Robert Peterpaul
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Lea Ann Biafora
No one is immune to cancer. The disease has impacted the majority of the world in some way, and that includes the “untouchables”—also known as celebrities. Many might find comfort in knowing that cancer even reaches the people we place high on pedestals.
From A-list actors like Hugh Jackman to iconic activists like Gloria Steinhem, here are ten stars who have made their experience with cancer public - both celebrities with cancer, and those who recovered from it.
Ben Stiller likely saved many lives by talking about his prostate cancer diagnosis. While appearing on The Howard Stern Show in 2016, the Meet the Parents star opened up about being diagnosed in June of 2014 at the age of 48. He discussed the American Cancer Society’s recommendation for average-risk men to begin screening at 50, and had he followed their recommendation, his cancer would have gone undetected. Stiller credited his doctor for testing him early and adding that the prostate-specific antigen test saved his life.
“I think the American Cancer Society says you should discuss it at 50,” Stiller said while speaking with Stern. “If I hadn’t taken the test—my doctor started giving it to me at 46—I would not have known. Right now, I still wouldn’t have known.”
Christina Applegate started getting mammograms at the early age of 30. This precaution was prompted by her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 38 Six years later, in 2008, Applegate was basking in a triumphant return to TV when she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Shortly after, she decided to have a double mastectomy.
“When I first came out about my breast cancer, I didn’t want to talk about it, but I had to, because young women were getting it, and people weren’t understanding that,” she later told People.
Applegate also has a genetic mutation known as BRCA1, which predisposes her to developing cancer. In 2017, she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as a preventative measure.
The Sex and the City celeb begs women to “get your mammograms, and don’t delay.” Diagnosed in 2002, Nixon privately treated her breast cancer with a lumpectomy and radiation.
Nixon publicly announced her diagnosis and became an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 2008. Like Applegate, her mother is also a breast cancer survivor.
Fran Drescher has become a well-known cancer advocate since her diagnosis in 2000. After visiting eight doctors and being misdiagnosed repeatedly, The Nanny icon was finally given an answer: stage 1 uterine cancer.
“In 2002, I wrote Cancer Schmancer to tell my story of survival so what happened to me wouldn’t happen to others,” Drescher writes on her website. “After I went on my book tour, I realized that what happened to me had happened to so many women like me. And so it was then I realized the book was not the end, but rather the beginning of a life mission to improve women's healthcare in America.”
This prompted Drescher to create the Cancer Schmancer Foundation, which aims “to transform women from patients into medical consumers, and to shift this nation's priority from searching for a cancer cure towards prevention and early detection of cancer.” Now a 20+ year survivor, Drescher passionately runs the foundation.
When the feminist icon was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, she didn’t know where to turn. “There were so few role models. When I first heard the diagnosis, I thought … ‘Oh, so that’s how it’s going to end,” she told NPR.
At 52, Steinem underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment, which fortunately made her cancer-free. The survival rate wasn’t high then, making Steinem a rarity in the public eye as one of few celebrities with breast cancer who were open about it
“[Cancer] made me realize that in this culture, women know how to be in the central plateau of life,” Steinem added. “Now I was entering a whole new place. It was like falling off a cliff, because I couldn’t see enough people ahead of me.”
The Today Show darling, Hoda Kotb, is another of the celebrities with breast cancer, being diagnosedr during a routine exam in 2007. At the age of 43, she still hadn’t had a mammogram. “I ask people all the time why they haven’t gotten checked for various things,” she said on Today, “and here I was not getting screened.”
“I am an apple-eating, Central Park-running, pretty healthy woman. I thought I was living right, but life is funny, isn’t it?” Hoda said while speaking at Network’s 21st annual Living With, Through and Beyond Cancer conference.
Hoda ended up having a mastectomy, TRAM-flap reconstruction, and then five years of tamoxifen therapy. She didn’t go public with her diagnosis right away—that is, until a life-changing moment. While on a stroll in NYC after her surgery, she encountered a fundraising walk for breast cancer. Like that, it hit her: She had to be a part of the movement.
“Cancer shaped me, but it did not define me,” she has since said. “It’s part of me, but not all of me.”
Even the mighty Wolverine isn’t immune to cancer. Hugh Jackman has fought off a skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma (BCC) six times since 2013. Jackman remains candid with fans about his journey over the years, regularly sharing updates and reminders to get skin checkups and wear sunscreen.
Jane Fonda has had a long relationship with cancer, including frequently getting suspicious “things” removed at the dermatologist, she told British Vogue. “I’ve had a lot of cancer,” the Oscar-winner said. “I was a sun-worshipper.”
In 2010, the star revealed that she had a procedure to remove a non-invasive tumor in her breast. Six years later, she got a mastectomy. In fact, the surgery even affected her wardrobe choice at the 2016 Golden Globes, she told British Vogue: "I get out of the car and I have that strange white dress with all the ruffles. That's because I'd just had a mastectomy and I had to cover my bandages."
In 2018, Jane didn’t hide the fact that she had another cancer scare. In fact, she showed up for the promotional tour of Grace and Frankie season four with a bandaged lip. "I had a little cancer," she informed NBC’s Today. "I'm going to be fine."
Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Drayfus was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2017. She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Julia was leading HBO’s Veep at the time. Production kindly put her recovery first and worked around her schedule.
"We had to stall Veep production because of my situation," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "A lot of people worked for me and I knew I couldn't really keep it private, because I had to tell everyone what was going on. And then I sort of embraced that. I got a lot of positive feedback. I think people liked the fact that I had a sense of humor about it and also, I think it's an important conversation to have about health and healthcare."
The Grease leading lady has been hopelessly devoted to giving back since her journey with breast cancer began in 1992. At the time, she received nine months of chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
In 2013, her doctors discovered that the cancer had metastasized in her body. She prevailed a second time. Then in 2017, doctors found another metastasis in the form of a tumor in her sacrum.
“I‘ve never seen cancer as a fight or a battle,” Newton-John told the Daily Stock Dish. “In fact, over the decades, I‘ve kind of befriended it—and right now, I‘m asking it to leave. Because instead of picking a fight with my body, I would rather keep calm and thank it for everything it has done for me.”
One of her greatest joys has been opening the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in her native Melbourne, Australia.