Hollywood celebrities may lead charmed lives, but even fame and fortune can not guarantee good health. In fact, cancer has touched the lives of some celebrities at a surprisingly young age, sometimes arriving at the peak of their careers. These stars have opened up to share their rare and unique stories of being diagnosed with cancer before 40, and to pass on the hard-earned lessons they learned from their shocking health scares. Read on to learn which 13 celebrities battled cancer before turning 40, and what they want people to know.
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Dead to Me star Christina Applegate has been in the public eye since she was a teen, so it came as quite a surprise to fans when she revealed that she was battling breast cancer at the age of 36.
Following her diagnosis, the star underwent genetic testing, which revealed that she was positive for a BRCA gene mutation. “If you’re BRCA positive, it’s highly possible you’ll develop cancer in your lifetime,” she explained on Today in 2017. Armed with this knowledge, Applegate decided to undergo a double mastectomy and later had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. “That’s how I’ve taken control of everything. It’s a relief,” she said. “That’s one other thing off the table. Now, let’s hope I don’t get hit by a bus,” she quipped.
Michael C. Hallstar of the crime drama Dexter, was busy shooting the series’ fourth season when he learned he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 38 at the time of his diagnosis — just one year younger than his father was when he died. “I think I’ve been preoccupied since I was 11, and my father died, with the idea of the age 39: would I live that long? What would that be like? To discover that I had the Hodgkin’s was alarming, but at the same time I felt kind of bemused, like: ‘Wow. Huh. How interesting,’ “he told The New York Times in 2010.
Though Hall kept his diagnosis a secret for the duration of the season, he later went public. “I’m glad I did,” he told The Guardian in 2014, “because I really underestimated how much that would be a source of inspiration or strength to other people. Just to see someone who you know and spend time watching, who goes through the treatment process successfully, is of value.”
While playing Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in the ABC comedy Modern Family, Sofia Vergara was the highest paid female actor on television. But in 2001, at the age of 28, Vergara’s doctor made a shocking discovery during a routine checkup: A lump in her neck that would prove to be a cancerous thyroid tumor.
“When you’re young and you hear that word, ‘cancer,’ your mind goes to so many places,” Vergara told NBC News in 2021. “But I tried not to panic and I decided to get educated. I read every book and found out everything I could about it.” The star settled on a course of treatment that included surgery to remove her thyroid gland, radiation, and daily thyroid hormone medication.
“I feel very lucky,” Vergara told Health in 2011. “In a lot of women, the cancer has not been found until around menopause, and by then it’s too late.”
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Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue was just 36 years old when she learned that she had breast cancer. In a 2020 interview with People, she reflected on learning of her 2005 diagnosis. “It’s like the earth had kind of slipped off its axis. You see everything differently,” she told the magazine.
Having undergone a lumpectomy and chemotherapy to treat her cancer, the star went into remission the following year. However, she says one lesson she learned from the experience has stayed with her long after her recovery: “You really do not know what anyone is going through,” she told People.
Barry Watson starred in the popular WB series 7th Heaven as eldest son and brother Matt Camden. But in 2002, at the age of 28, the star learned he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Watson took a leave of absence from the show to undergo chemotherapy, and returned for its 150th episode with his cancer undetectable.
Now two decades past his diagnosis, Watson says the experience is at once a distant memory and always with him. “It’s still such a big part of my life because I still think about it, but also time has passed where it’s almost like, ‘Did that really happen? Did I really go through all that?’ And now having this whole other life with my wife and my kids that they weren’t even a part of that time, it feels like a lifetime ago, “he told ABC News in 2021.
Sopranos star Edie Falco was 40 years old when she learned she had breast cancer. The Emmy award-winning actor says her diagnosis was especially “surreal” given she was expected back at work on set just hours after that fateful appointment.
Falco was private about both her diagnosis and treatment, only going public about her illness five months after going into remission. While speaking with Parade in 2009, the Nurse Jackie star said she believes she survived in part because she had been at her healthiest going into the diagnosis. “I had really been taking care of myself for about 15 years before I got sick — not drinking, not [using tobacco], eating well — so I fared very well. They gave me very strong chemo drugs. I was so lucky that two of the biggest things in my life — my sobriety and my breast cancer — happened in the order they happened. “
When MTV host Tom Green went public with his testicular cancer battle at the age of 28, he was among the first young celebrities to do so.
In 2000, he turned his real-life medical drama into a sketch-comedy-meets-documentary show called The Tom Green Cancer Special. Green explained to Entertainment Weekly how the idea came about: “I was feeling really sorry for myself and sitting around with [co-star] Glenn Humplik and [head writer] Derek Harvieand we decided it might be a way of getting off the depressing tip, “he said.
The comedian says that while he set out to make a “weird TV show,” he soon realized it could have an impact on its viewers. “All of a sudden people were coming up to us with somber and teary, thankful, handshaking sort of things. And we started to realize that maybe this was actually good, what we were doing,” he told the outlet.
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Saturday Night Live star Vanessa Bayer was just 15 years old when she learned she had leukemia. After undergoing chemotherapy, she ultimately went into remission as she entered her senior year of high school. “I think having cancer has definitely shaped my comedy because I found so many ways and reasons to laugh while I was sick, and it really gave me a stronger comedic point of view,” she told Coping with Cancer Magazine in 2019. “It’s so therapeutic to laugh… and, besides, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a hospital knows there’s a lot to laugh at.”
Her newest project, I Love That for You, draws on her experiences with childhood cancer. “This character had childhood leukemia and I had childhood leukemia,” Bayer told Entertainment Tonight. “I would sort of use the fact that I was sick to get special treatment and I would… capitalize on the perks of having cancer,” she said, adding, “I thought it would be fun to do something where I explored that element about it. “
At 40 years old, standup comedian and actor Tig Notaro took to the stage at the comedy club Largo in Los Angeles. “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?” she began, to the sound of scattered and uncomfortable laughter. “Guys relax, everything’s fine,” she responded, dryly.
The set — which was so well-received that its recording was nominated for a Grammy Award — detailed the young comedian’s stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis, which would require a bilateral mastectomy and hormone therapy.
In 2016, she opened up to NPR about her decision to lay her diagnosis bare on stage just one week after receiving it. “I really feel like looking back now that I was probably asking for help on some level, you know? I really was astounded by how many people were touched and lifted by the performance, and that was such a relief after putting that vulnerable set out there. “
At the age of 37, Trainspotting star Ewan McGregor had a mole below his right eye checked by a doctor. “I went to see a specialist who thought they were better to be removed, and indeed he was correct,” Cosmopolitan reported him saying at the time.
The Moulin Rouge actor seemed unfazed by the experience. He shared that although the mole was cancerous, he felt it was “not that big of a deal.”
Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 40. The star was unsurprised by the news, having witnessed her mother survive the same diagnosis. “I always sort of thought, ‘I’m probably going to get breast cancer. There’s a really good chance,” Nixon told ABC News in 2008.
While the actor admits that she initially felt “scared” upon learning of her condition, she says she felt very optimistic about how early it was caught. “I was very cognizant of if it’s going to happen, this is the best way for it to happen — that it’s found so early and we can just get right on it.”
Tarek El Moussastar of the hit HGTV series Flip or Flop and Flipping 101survived cancer not once but twice before turning 40. First diagnosed with thyroid cancer after a viewer of the show alerted him to a suspicious lump on his neck, he later learned that he had also developed testicular cancer.
“My advice to others is this: If you feel something is wrong, talk to as many medical professionals as you can,” he told Coping with Cancer Magazine in 2016. “It’s better to get opinions from five doctors rather than one who could make a mistake. Ultimately, you know your body. Trust your gut,” he urged.
In 2011, 36-year-old E! News host Giuliana Rancic shared a shocking announcement: She was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Rancic says that although she was a “nervous wreck” about making her cancer battle public, she felt compelled to share her story in order to encourage others to get screened. “I have so many young female viewers who watch me and I want to help them,” Rancic said on E! News (via People). “I have an amazing platform to really help people so that’s why it was really important for me to share this story.”
The TV host implores her viewers to “make that appointment with your doctor, make sure you’re going to your yearly appointment, figure out how to give yourself a self exam.” She adds: “I think we’ve done such a good job of raising awareness for breast cancer, but then you have to take awareness and turn it into action.”
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