When it comes to breast cancer, people of various statures and backgrounds have felt the impact of the disease. A 2016 report from the CDC revealed Black women are diagnosed with breast cancer as much as white women. However, the death rate for Black women is 40% higher than it is for white women. The devastation has been reflected through high-profile celebrities who have publicly battled breast cancer.
Black women in particular have taken the initiative to inspire and inform their community after suffering from breast cancer. Here are nine Black celebrities who have battled the disease.
1. Wanda Sykes
"I had breast cancer," Sykes said. "Yeah, I know it's scary."
The cancer was found after Sykes underwent a cosmetic procedure for breast reduction.
"I had real big boobs and I just got tired of knocking over stuff," she told Ellen DeGeneres. "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."
The survivor said she was very lucky because it was only a stage-zero cancer which was found her in left breast. Still, the comedian didn't want to take any chances, considering the history of breast cancer on her mother's side.
"I had both breasts removed because now I have zero chance of having breast cancer," she said. "It sounds scary up front, but what do you want? Do you want to wait and not be as fortunate when it comes back and it's too late?"
2. Robin Roberts
Robin Roberts has been inspiring women through various initiatives, books and speaking engagements after being diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2007, the Good Morning America anchor determined something was abnormal with her breasts.
"Because I was familiar with my body and the lumps, I knew this one felt different. It was in a different place on my breast, and it was hard,” she told Prevention in 2011. “If I hadn't been doing self-exams, I wouldn't have known that.”
Roberts also needed a bone marrow transplant after being diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), according to Biography. But she found a match from her sister, Sally-Ann, who donated stem cells and saved Roberts' life.
The survivor said she refuses to let cancer define her.
“I had a choice: let my illnesses define me and give into my difficult circumstances, or embrace my experience as a ‘rebirth,’” she wrote in 2018. “I refused to look back, and only looked forward. Like many others, I chose to thrive, not just survive.”
Six years after getting the bone marrow transplant , Roberts introduced an initiative known as #thriverthursday, which spotlights people who overcome life altering circumstances.
3. Diahann Carroll
Legendary actress Diahann Carroll died in 2019 from cancer at the age of 84, NBC New York reported. Carroll, who is remembered as the first Black woman to star as someone other than a servant, was treated for breast cancer in 1998.
The trailblazer advocated for more funding to go towards breast cancer research and screening for women who can't afford mammograms.
"We all look forward to the day that mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiation are considered barbaric," Carroll said.
The New York native is best remembered for her role in the 1974 film, Claudine, where she played as a mother of six who falls in love with a garbage man in Harlem.
4. Vanessa Bell Calloway
Vanessa Bell Calloway, who played Princess Imani Izzi in Coming To America, was diagnosed with stage zero breast cancer at the age of 52. The actress said she woke up one morning and felt a strange hunch.
"I knew God was whispering in my ear to tell me something was wrong," she told EBONY. "Even though I wasn’t in any pain, I needed to call my physician as soon as possible for an appointment."
After confirming the cancer, Calloway learned that she needed a mastectomy.
"That was the day I was the maddest. I wanted to throw things, but I wasn’t tearing up my house," she said. "I had a hard time coming to grips with my condition, but my husband and sister turned it around, reminding me 'It’s just a breast. Let it go.'”
The actress went to two surgeons. One performed the mastectomy while the other reconstructed her breast by using body tissue from her stomach.
"I showed them photos of me on the red carpet, and I made sure to tell them to leave my cleavage," she said. "My playboy days are over, but I still needed to be sexy."
Reflecting on the hardship she faced, Calloway advises people to never take life for granted.
"Anytime you go through anything so emotional, you learn a lot," she said. "I’m very grateful and blessed. I love my birthdays even more. I’m 58 now. Some people stress about becoming older, but who cares about your age? You can’t turn 80 without turning 60."
5. Calypso Rose
Caribbean trailblazer Calypso Rose is still making music at the age of 79 after surviving breast cancer, as well as several other life-threatening challenges. According to Billboard, Rose made history last year, becoming the oldest artist and the first calypsonian to be booked for a full set at Coachella.
The artist has inspired people around the world. Her 2016 album Far From Home, was certified platinum in France. She also won the 2017 Victoire de la Musique award in France.
The Trinidad and Tobago native has used her music to bring attention to several topics of women rights issues, including domestic abuse, exploitation and infidelity.
In addition to surviving breast cancer, Rose has undergone heart surgery to insert a pacemaker. She also needed a procedure to remove stomach cancer. The procedure, however, caused her lungs to collapse and she lost four pints of blood.
Rose said she died on that day and came back to life.
"That's how I know the good Lord still wants me here," she said. "Because I have a job to do: bring joy, peace and harmony to my fans and to the world."
6. Naomi Sims
Naomi Sims, who is remembered as a trailblazing Black supermodel, died from breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 61. Sims modeled for well-known designers like Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, The New York Times reported.
“She was the great ambassador for all Black people. She broke down all the social barriers,” Halston told The New York Times.
The model overcame a rough childhood, living in a foster home in a predominantly white Pittsburgh neighborhood and dealing with insecurities because of her tall figure. She came to New York on a scholarship and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966.
The model faced several rejections as she tried to launch her career. Some turned her down because they considered her skin to be too dark. But Sims persisted and found a break when she earned a national television campaign for AT&T.
7. Ananda Lewis
Ananda Lewis is the latest Black celebrity to reveal that she has breast cancer. The former host of BET’s Teen Summit, who is facing stage 3 breast cancer, decided to share her story during October to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
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This is tough for me to share, but if just ONE woman decides to get her mammogram after watching this, what I’m going through will be worth it. ????PRACTICE EARLY DETECTION???? Share this with a woman you love. These 6 minutes could help save her life. ????I love you guys???? #breastcancerawarenessmonth #myjourney #breastcancer #getyourmammogram #earlydetection #savelives #fuckcancer #GodisGood #Allthetime #thetestisthetestimony #knowyourpower #alternativetherapies #stayfearless #igotthis #takecareofyourgirls #breasthealth #lovelife #joy #behappy #nomatterwhat
“I have been fighting to get cancer out of my body for almost two years,” Lewis said on Instagram Live. “That phrase ‘Don’t talk about it be about it,’ that’s been my life for almost two years and honestly there’s nothing any of you could have done so I apologize if you felt like I excluded you. It wasn’t personal, it was just something I needed."
The 47-year-old said she watched her mother get mammograms and refused to get it for herself because she was afraid of the radiation.
“If I had done the mammograms from the time they were recommended when I turned 40, they would’ve caught the tumor in my breast years before I caught it through my own self exam and thermography," she said. "And they would have caught it at a place where it was more manageable."
Lewis said the cancer isn't spreading like wildfire at this point, but she still has work to do.
"I have a 9-year-old I need to be here for," she said. "I have no intention on leaving him. I don’t want to leave my kids, my friends, my family. Hell I don’t want to leave myself. I like being here!”
8. Hoda Kotb
NBC anchor Hoda Kotb was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, according to Today. That's when a doctor found lumps in Kotb's breast during a routine exam. The journalist hadn't had a mammogram until the age of 43.
"I ask people all the time why they haven’t gotten checked for various things, and here I was not getting screened,” she said.
According to Hello Magazine, the Today Show host initially kept her diagnosis secret from the public, but changed her mind after meeting a stranger on a plane. She said he inspired her to share her story with others and help people in similar situations.
"He taught me that it can be part of you, but not all of you. It can shape you, but not define you," Kotb said on The Thrive Podcast in 2018.
9. Mathew Knowles
According to Breastcancer.org, less than 1% of men also get breast cancer. About 520 males are expected to die from the diagnosis in 2020.
Music producer and promoter Mathew Knowles was among the survivors after being diagnosed with breast cancer last year. The father of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Solange Knowles shared his story with Good Morning America in 2019.
"I noticed because I wear white T-shirts. I had a dot of blood on my T-shirt," he said. "The first day I was like 'Oh, OK, no big deal. Maybe it’s something that just got on my T-shirt.' Second day I looked and the same thing and I was like, "Eh, interesting."
When he saw more drops of blood on the fifth day, Knowles went to see a doctor. A mammogram later confirmed the breast cancer.
Dr. John Kiluk, a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer, said there are about 2,000- 3,000 men who get breast cancer per year in the United States.
"When it comes to breast cancer we really don’t know what causes it," Kiluk told Good Morning America. "We are trying hard to find what causes cancer. I think the one thing though that we do know is that there’s a strong genetic tie with cancer."
Knowles has a history of breast cancer in his family. His mother’s sister, as well as his mother’s sister’s daughters and his mother-in-law have had breast cancer. The breast cancer survivor encourages other men to get checkups. To encourage more men to speak up, Knowles said the term "breast cancer" shouldn't be used.
"Since I’ve shared my diagnosis, countless men have secretly shared their male chest cancer diagnosis with me, as they were too ashamed to talk openly about having 'breast cancer,'" he wrote in an article for USA TODAY. "It’s time to use inclusive terminology that doesn’t embarrass men or prevent them from seeking the care they need."
To learn more about getting a mammogram, head here.