"Every three minutes a woman is diagnosed, and that's just unacceptable."
This is how Reese Witherspoon speaks about breast cancer, a disease that more than 200,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with in 2007 alone. On Oct. 16, Witherspoon joined more than 3,000 men and women at the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in New York City, raising more than $8.4 million for breast cancer research and care -- just one of many events held throughout October, also known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Organizations such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization and the Avon Foundation use Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a way to educate the public about the disease and how to be proactive when it comes to detection. Acting as a public face of the Avon Foundation, it is this consciousness-raising role that Reese Witherspoon finds herself in. In town for the walk and to announce the foundation’s latest Global Scholars Initiative, we had a chance to catch up with Witherspoon (who was just as sweet as she appears to be on-screen) and learn more about her involvement with breast cancer education.
Witherspoon has been the foundation’s global ambassador for the past five years, and she says the experience alone has been an education:
When I was first approached by Avon to represent their foundation … I wanted to know, what were the issues on women’s minds? … Breast cancer is first and foremost on the list of concerns for women. Domestic violence is also in the top three … It was really an education for me to see that these are the issues affecting women every day of their lives.
The importance of early detection and screening is a hot-button issue that Witherspoon is particularly passionate about. “You have such a greater chance of surviving breast cancer if [it's] detected early … Throughout the world, that’s a message that we need to get out there,” she told The Huffington Post.
Women over the age of 50 (and younger women who are considered high-risk) are recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force to get screened every other year. The American Cancer Society casts a wider net, suggesting that women begin getting yearly mammograms at 40. Although a recent study revealed that mammograms return false positives on a fairly regular basis, the scan remains the best way we have to detect breast cancer early on. Witherspoon said that one of the key ways that she maintains a healthy lifestyle is by visiting her doctor on a regular basis, and she urges all women to do the same.
When it comes to educating children about breast cancer and other health issues, many parents find it difficult to even broach the subject. Witherspoon sees October as the perfect time to delve right in. “There’s pink everywhere,” she said, laughing. “I don’t think your children can not notice that buildings are painted pink, and at the airport there are pink balloons everywhere. That’s a great [way] to start a conversation with your kids.”
And although she doesn’t think that celebrities have a responsibility to become activists, she's quite vocal about the merits of being involved:
Whether people are making movies about issues or TV shows, or giving money, or giving their voice to raise funds -– any one of those ways that people help shine the spotlight on these issues that are affecting so many people is great … It’s very humbling [to] feel like you can make any kind of change in this world. I’m very lucky to be able to do that.
Click through the slideshow below to see other inspiring faces of breast cancer education and awareness.
The 36-year-old "E! News" host announced in October on NBC's Today show that she has breast cancer, and that she was alerted to the cancer via a mammogram during her third in vitro fertilization attempt. "Through my attempt to get pregnant for the third time, we sadly found out that I have early stages of breast cancer," she said on the Today show. "It's been a shock. A lot of people have been asking, we saw that you went and got IVF, are you pregnant? But sadly, we've had to put that off." Rancic underwent a double lumpectomy and removal of several of her lymph nodes, but Rancic later went on the TODAY show in December to say that the cancer was not completely cleared by those treatments and that she will undergo a double mastectomy.
In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres aired last month, Wanda Sykes revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. "I had breast cancer. Yeah, I know it's scary," Sykes said in the interview. "This was in February. I went for the reduction. 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." After the reduction, the pathology report found ductal carcinoma in situ in her left breast, which prompted Skykes, who has a family history of breast cancer, to opt for a double mastectomy. And while the diagnosis is scary, she hasn't lost her signature humor. "I was like, 'I don't know, should I talk about it or what?' How many things could I have? I'm black, then lesbian. I can't be the poster child for everything ... At least with the LGBT issues we get a parade, we get a float, it's a party. [But] I was real hesitant about doing this, because I hate walking. I got a lot of [cancer] walks coming up."
Elizabeth Edwards was first diagnosed with breast cancer just hours after her husband and presidential-hopeful John Kerry conceded their election -- she had originally noticed a lump in her breast during the campaign. She continued to fight the disease on and off until she passed away in December 2010, after learning that the cancer had spread to her liver. Her family asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which was founded in honor of Edwards' son, Wade, who died in a car crash at the age of 16.
In 2008, actress Christina Applegate shared in a "Good Morning America" interview that she had been dagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36 -- she also opted for a bilateral mastectomy instead of radiation or chemotherapy. "I didn't want to go back to the doctors every four months for testing and squishing and everything. I just wanted to kind of get rid of this whole thing for me. This was the choice that I made and it was a tough one," she said in the interview. "Sometimes, you know, I cry. And sometimes I scream. And I get really angry. And I get really upset, you know, into wallowing in self-pity sometimes. And I think that it's all part of the healing." Perhaps the best healing of all came earlier this year when Applegate gave birth to baby Sadie with musician Martyn LeNoble. "She's healed me in so many ways. She's just made my life so much better. I've been kind of sad for a long time, and she's just opened my whole soul," Applegate told People in an exclusive interview this past February.
In 2005, rock-and-roll artist Etheridge underwent a lumpectomy and five rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to eradicate her breast cancer. "I had been running along in my life at a fast pace. When I heard it was cancer, I just stood still," Etheridge told Shape magazine in a 2009 interview. "My life passed over me like a big wave, and after, I was left there standing. This turned out to be a very good thing. I stopped. I looked at my life, I looked at my body and spirit." In the midst of her treatment, Etheridge found out she was nominated for a Grammy for her song "Breathe" -- and while she wasn't sure she'd make an appearance at first, Etheridge ultimately decided not only to attend, but to perform in a Janis Joplin tribute. Taking to the stage bald and with no eyebrows from chemo, she belted out Joplin's classic, "Piece Of My Heart." "It was very special that I had been presented with a day, that I could come back into this entertainment world, and show everyone that you are back and okay, and thought, okay," Etheridge told MSNBC at the time. "I'm going to do this. And I'm not gonna be afraid of the truth. The truth is, yes I had cancer. Yes, I got it out of me. Yes, I went through chemotherapy. Yes, I'm bald." Check out Etheridge's breast cancer causes on her Pink Rage website.
ABC's "Good Morning America" host Robin Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. "I never thought I'd be writing this. ... I have breast cancer," she said in a message released by ABC in August 2007. While working on a tribute to her colleague Joel Siegel, who had died from cancer, Robins reported on how key early detection is -- and, taking her own advice, she did a self breast exam and found a lump. "Much as I was hoping the doctor would say it was nothing, she did a biopsy and confirmed that the lump I'd found was indeed an early form of breast cancer," Robins continued in her statement. Robins underwent a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. In 2008, she told People magazine that she complemented her regular doctor's visits with acupuncture, exercise and advice from a nutritionist. "Yes, I am living with cancer," she told People. "But don't go 'woe is me.' I don't want it. Don't need it. I'm still in the game. I don't want to say 'survivor.' I want to thrive."
Australian singer Minogue was first diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2005 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatment. "When you are stripped of everything and you have to grow your eyelashes back, grow your hair back, it's just astonishing," Minogue told British Glamour magazine. "It's hard to express what I've learned from that, but a deep psychological and emotional shift has obviously taken place." This open and honest approach to her diagnosis led Minogue to be voted the most inspirational breast cancer celebrity in an online British-based poll, Reuters reports.
Singer Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and, thanks to early detection, underwent a minimally invasive surgery and seven weeks of radiation therapy. Crow told Health magazine that she saw a nutritionist when she was first diagnosed and began a diet full of fish, walnuts, colorful vegetables, fiber and healthy spices. "I kept my breast cancer tattoos -- where the radiation was lined up on my chest," Crow told Health. "Once in a while I look at it to remind myself that I have to put on my oxygen mask first before I put it on anybody else." Today, a cancer-free Crow is focused on spreading the message of early detection. In 2010, she founded the Sheryl Crow Center as part of the Pink Lotus Breast Center, which was founded by her own surgeon, ABC News reports.
In 2008, the "Sex and the City" star went public with her cancer diagnosis, revealing that she found a lump in its early stages and had it removed through radiation, The Huffington Post reported at the time. Nixon wrote in a 2008 Newsweek article that her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer twice -- the first time, Nixon was just 13. "I feel like I have a very concrete story to tell. My story isn't just my story, it mine and my mother's story," the Susan G. Komen for the Cure spokesperson has said.