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20 Actors and Musicians Who've Become Health Activists

May 21, 2013  |  9:39am
20 Actors and Musicians Who've Become Health Activists

Last Tuesday, Angelina Jolie told the world via a New York Times op-ed that she’d recently undergone a double mastectomy (surgical removal of both breasts) in response to testing positive for the breast cancer gene, BRCA 1.

Her revelation garnered a massive and immediate social-media response. People were initially shocked by the news and were abuzz on the internet and on television about her medical choice; at once praising her bravery and wondering how she was able to make such a decision, let alone go through with it.

As a celebrated actress known for her beauty (and curves) about as much as her talent and social activism, Jolie’s decision will undoubtedly affect others wrestling with a similar decision—or at least inspire other women to get tested for the gene.

In today’s media landscape, a world of Photoshopped faces and PR perfection, it’s easy to forget that the actors and musicians whose art we celebrate everyday are vulnerable to many of the same diseases and misfortunes that we are. The same fame that allows them to promote their movies and forthcoming albums also creates the illusion of physical and emotional perfection. But in the face of disease—of things like cancer and mental illness—that mask of flawless beauty cracks and morphs into something else. And sometimes that mask morphs into a desire to help others, to use their fame to bring attention to a problem.

The following actors and musicians did just that. Read on to learn more about those who, instead of hiding their health issues from the public, came forward with their own illnesses to raise money and bring awareness to various ailments, urging others to take control of their healthcare.

1. Halle Berry
After initial confusion as to which type of diabetes the Oscar-winning actress had and falling into a week-long coma at the age of 22, Halle Berry was not officially diagnosed as having type 2 diabetes until 2005, when she was 39. After implementing a strict diet and exercise regimen, Berry was able to successfully manage her blood sugar levels with the help of insulin. By 2007, it had been announced that she no longer needed to inject herself with insulin to stay healthy. Berry has been a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk’s Diabetes Aware campaign and the Children’s Diabetes Foundation. You can view a public service announcement that Berry recorded for CDF in the video below.

2. Robin Williams
After undergoing open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve with that of a cow’s in 2009, the award-winning actor and stand-up comedian brought his story of heart disease, surgery and recovery (along with his sense of humor) to an interview by Barbara Walters for her 2011 television special A Matter of Life and Death. You can watch the story of his illness and the aftermath in a clip of Walters’ interview with him on the video below.

3. Kathleen Turner
The Body Heat star has so far enjoyed 35 years of success as an actress in movies and on television, so it’s surprising to hear that along with that success Turner had also suffered from chronic pain and alcoholism due in large part to having rheumatoid arthritis. Turner had been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease in 1993 and has since then dealt with both the symptoms and tge alcoholism that developed as result of trying to cope with the chronic pain of RA. She wrote about her experiences with RA in a book titled Send Yourself Roses in 2008. Turner speaks candidly about her RA in the following video, at the 7:34 mark.

4. Carrie Fisher
Though the Star Wars franchise star had been diagnosed at the age of 24 as having bipolar disorder, it wasn’t until 1997, and a psychotic break, that Carrie Fisher had sought help for her mental illness. In 2000, she announced she had bipolar disorder in a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer. Since then, Fisher has become a public speaker and advocate for those living with the mood disorder. In another revealing interview, Fisher talks about her bipolar disorder and addresses her use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment option in the following video, at the 9:50 mark.

5. Mike McCready
Crohn’s disease involves the inflammation (swelling and pain) of the lining of a person’s digestive tract. As a result, patients with the disease often suffer from abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and malnutrition. The lead guitarist of Pearl Jam was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of 21 in 1987. And after years of musical success and yet feeling ashamed of his Crohn’s, he finally reached out to others with the disease in 2001, in order to better understand it. Since then, McCready has been vocal about it, as he’s written a personal column about the issue for The Huffington Post and brought his willingness to talk about it and his sense of humor to interviews like the one featured below.

6. Jon Hamm

In an interview with The Observer, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm described his “struggle with chronic depression” and how at 20 years old, with the help of his friends, their parents, medication and therapy he was able to pull through a particularly difficult time in his life: the passing of his father. And Hamm went onto emphasize the efficacy of antidepressants and therapy in his case: “I did do therapy and antidepressants for a brief period, which helped me. Which is what therapy does: It gives you another perspective when you are so lost in your own spiral, your own bullshit. It helps. And honestly? Antidepressants help! If you can change your brain chemistry enough to think: ‘I want to get up in the morning; I don’t want to sleep until four in the afternoon. I want to get up and go do my shit and go to work and…Reset the auto-meter, kick-start the engine!”

7. Fran Drescher
It took two years and eight doctors for the star of The Nanny to get an accurate diagnosis for her symptoms. It turned out that Drescher had uterine cancer. Over the last decade, since her diagnosis, Drescher has written a book about her experiences with cancer and her frustration with the medical community for misdiagnosing her for so long. But the actress didn’t stop there: In an effort to encourage others to take a more active role in their own healthcare, rather than just passively following doctor’s orders, Drescher also founded the Cancer Schmancer Movement, an organization which seeks to educate others about early detection, preventative measures and to rally others to participate in health activism and advocacy. You can hear more about Drescher’s story from Drescher herself, with her trademark voice and bubbly sense of humor in the video below.

8. Tamia
The R&B singer, best known for 2000’s “Stranger In My House” was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. MS is a chronic disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy nerves, causing damage primarily to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Initially, the Canadian singer didn’t want to make her diagnosis public. But after learning more about MS, Tamia was inspired to spread awareness of it, to remind others that “it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.” She’s opened up to fans about her health via interviews on television shows like EXTRA and in magazines like Jet.

9. Toni Braxton
In 2010, via CBS News, the Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter revealed her struggle with lupus. Lupus is an chronic disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the rest of the body, with dangerous and painful consequences that affect numerous organs. Braxton herself had been diagnosed with lupus after first being diagnosed with pericarditis, which is the inflammation of your heart’s muscle tissue. The pericarditis was found to be caused by lupus. Since her diagnosis, Braxton has been an active advocate, through organizations like Lupus LA, for others struggling with lupus and has won awards for her activism. In the video below, Braxton and another woman with lupus talk about living with the autoimmune disease.

10. Christina Applegate
The Up All Night and Anchorman star was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Applegate’s treatment for breast cancer involved a lumpectomy and, after having tested positive for the breast cancer gene (BRCA gene), a double mastectomy (the removal of both breasts). Since her experience with breast cancer, Applegate has been an activist for early detection and the use of MRIs in addition to mammograms to check for cancer, as mammograms alone, in her case, given the density of her breasts, would not have detected the presence of cancer accurately, if at all. Applegate has also founded Right Action for Women, an organization that covers the cost of MRIs for young women who are at-risk for breast cancer but cannot afford the MRI necessary to detect it.

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