“My hope that women will not be afraid”: Classic Actresses who had Breast Cancer

To go along with some monthly health observances, Comet Over Hollywood is recognizing actors who battled diseases and often, kept it a secret from their public and exhibited strength by continuing to practice their craft. Others helped create awareness or spearheaded organizations for research, such as Yul Brynner. For October 2015’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Comet is recognizing actresses who were diagnosed with breast cancer.

PicMonkey Collage

Today, breast cancer survivors are proud and openly share their stories. Some wear pink t-shirts saying they are a survivor, write memoirs or are interviewed by the news to help spread awareness to other women to pay attention to their bodies.

But for actresses of the Golden Era, this wasn’t the case. Many of their obituaries simply note they had endured a “long illness.” Newspapers said Judy Holliday was in the hospital for a bronchial illness and one obituary for Rosalind Russell said she died from stomach cancer. This was largely because of the stigma that surrounded this particular form of cancer.

In the 1950s, the New York Times refused an advertisement for a breast cancer support group, saying they wouldn’t publish the word “breast” or “cancer.” Because of this, during my research I had some troubles finding reliable sources to confirm that some of these women had cancer at all.

It took the help of some of these actresses who were diagnosed with breast cancer to help get rid of the stigma by publicly speaking about their illnesses.

One of the first celebrities to open up about having breast cancer was former child star Shirley Temple. She wanted to empower women to be involved in their medical decisions and held a press conference from her hospital bed in 1972 while recovering from a lumpectomy.

“It is my fervent hope that women will not be afraid to go to their doctors for diagnosis when they have unusual symptoms,” Shirley Temple Black said during a press conference in November 1972. “There is almost certain recovery from this form of cancer if it is caught early enough.”

Actresses who had breast cancer:

Annex - Bardot, Brigitte_43

Brigitte Bardot- The French “sex kitten actress” who made waves with “…And God Created Woman” (1956) was diagnosed in her early 50s. A  Jan. 1985 Los Angeles Times article says that Bardot underwent surgery for breast cancer in France. The article says Bardot was going to receive radiation treatment after the surgery. Bardot is now a 30 year cancer survivor.


Ingrid Bergman– The Swedish-born Academy Award winning actress spent the last several years of her life with breast cancer. The illness is what caused her death at age 67 in 1982. The “Casablanca” actress was diagnosed in 1973, according to Biography.

”Cancer victims who don’t accept their fate, who don’t learn to live with it, will only destroy what little time they have left,” Bergman is quoted in her obituary.

Bergman’s New York Times obituary only says that she had cancer.

“Mama suffered from breast cancer for nine years and the last three years, when my brother and sisters took turns to be with her in London, were very difficult,” said her daughter Isabella Rossellini in an Aug. 2015 interview which celebrated Bergman’s 100th birthday. “The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she had an enormous [tumour on her] right arm and was very depressed with the fear of being unable to act.”

Diahann Carroll Sitting with Hands Clasped

Diahann Carroll- The “Julia” actress was diagnosed in 1997 with breast cancer after having her yearly mammogram. Carroll was reluctant to talk about her diagnosis.

“First, it doesn’t even phase you. You just [say], ‘Thank you for the information, doctor, and we’ll speak about this tomorrow.’ Because that’s the way I handle things,” Carroll says in an interview on Oprah’s Masterclass.

Carroll is now a breast cancer awareness activist but was reluctant to talk about it at first.

“The vanity was, I didn’t want anyone to know. I don’t want that to be the thought of anyone, the first thing they think when they hear my name: ‘She has cancer, you know.'” she said. “I later thought, ‘That’s pretty arrogant. There are millions of women who have to deal with this every day. We have to work together here, and it’s my responsibility to help them with that.'”


Yvonne Craig- Best known for her role as “Batgirl” on the 1960s TV series “Batman,” Craig passed away in August 2015 at the age of 78 from breast cancer. Craig fought breast cancer for two years.

“Chemotherapy weakened her but didn’t dampen her sense of humor or her spirit, she intended to fight and win this battle. In the end, her mind still wanted to fight but her body had given up,” according to a statement by Craig’s family to ABC News.

Ms. Craig’s family said in a statement that she had breast cancer, which eventually metastasized to her liver, for more than two years, but that she had kept her condition private, according to her New York Times obituary.

“She wanted to spend all of her energy concentrating on winning her battle,” her family said in the New York Times. “She was adamant about this and wanted to tell her story when she was cured and feeling better.”


Bette Davis- Bette Davis said she wanted her epitaph to be, “Here lies Ruth Elizabeth Davis-she did it the hard way.”

Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1980s and underwent a mastectomy in 1981, according to her New York Times obituary.

Davis did it the hard way and continued acting up until a few years before her death. When she starred in “The Whales of August” (1987) with Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern, she had breast cancer and recently had recovered from a massive stroke.

Davis passed away in 1989 at the age of 81 after attending San Sebastian, Spain to receive an award at a film festival. She was flown to Paris after the festival where she died.

ca. 1957 --- Actress Ruby Dee --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

Ruby Dee- The actress best known for her role in “A Raisin in the Sun” and wife of actor Ossie Davis, was diagnosed with maligned breast cancer in 1970 and underwent a lumpectomy, according to her obituary in Bloomberg.

“Pins. Needles, people talking, asking questions,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Count backward? I know that routine. I will not go under, get knocked out, surrender to oblivion.”

Dee was a 40 year cancer survivor, passing away in June 2014 at age 91 of natural causes.



Kay Francis- Kay Francis was Warner Brothers’ top star in the 1930s but when Bette Davis hit the scene, Warner began treating Francis poorly and giving her lousy work to push her out. However, she continued working until her career ended after World War II, according to TCM primetime host Robert Osborne. r.

In 1966, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. However, it was too late and the cancer had spread, according to The Power of Glamour: The Women who Defined the Magic of Stardom

While she was ill, Francis was offered Lana Turner’s role in “Madame X,” which she had to turn down due to her health, according to Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career By Lynn Kear and John Rossman.

After her mastectomy, Francis was refined to her bed where she read, watched television, drank and took her medication according to “The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies” by Daniel Bubbeo and the Kear book. Francis died 1968 at age 63.

Head Shot of Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo- After leaving the screen more than 40 years before, Greta Garbo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, underwent a partial mastectomy in New York and was given the all-clear three months later. Garbo passed away in 1990 at age 84 from renal failure and pneumonia, according to the 2012 book Greta Garbo: A Divine Star By David Bret.


Paulette Goddard- There is conflicting information about Paulette Goddard and her breast cancer diagnosis. In an article on TCM’s webpage for Summer Under the Stars by Lorraine LoBianco, the author wrote that Goddard died from breast cancer in 1990. However, various other sources, including her New York Times obituary, say Goddard died in 1990 of heart failure at age 78.

Other sources, including a  French Paulette Goddard webpage, and a 1995 book on Goddard and her husband Erich Remarque say Goddard was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s and had a mastectomy in 1975. The effects of the mastectomy were emotionally damaging and made her reclusive in her later years, according to the French webpage.

Actress Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame- Actress Gloria Grahame, known for her roles in film noirs and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974. She tried treating the illness with strict dieting and homeopathic remedies. One doctor told her to stop smoking, stop drinking alcohol and incorporate a vegetarian diet, according to Gloria Grahame, Bad Girl of Film Noir: The Complete Career by Robert J. Lentz. From these changes, Grahame believed that cancer apparently went into remission.

But in 1980, Grahame learned she had breast cancer for a second time and refused treatment. She preferred to work, ignore the illness and never said anything publically about having cancer. Grahame worked until her death. She was preparing for a role in “The Glass Menagerie” in London when she collapsed due to an infection in her abdominal wall, according to Lentz. She passed away in 1981 at age 57.


Julie HarrisActress Julie Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981 and had a mastectomy right before starting her role on “Knotts Landing,” according to her New York Times obituary. Harris was undergoing chemotherapy while on the show, according to the Washington Post. Harris passed away in August 2013 at age 87.

Actress Judy Holliday

Judy Holliday- Academy Award winning actress and comedian Judy Holliday died from breast cancer in 1965 at age 43. It was difficult to find details about her death due to the time frame when she died, but the book “Promise Me” by Nancy Brinker says Holliday had her left breast removed in the early 1960s and the newspapers said she was in the hospital for a bronchial infection

However, her 1965 obituary notes that she had cancer and she had surgery because of cancer in 1961.

Brinker also writes that after Holliday’s cancer metastasized, her doctors and family thought it would best she didn’t know, telling her that her right breast was in pain because of an inflammation of the sternum. However, this information is not sited.


Jennifer Jones- While some sources list Jennifer Jones as a breast cancer survivor, there is very little information on the Academy Award winning actress’s fight. The only article that mentions that Jones was a breast cancer survivor is her 2009 USA Today obituary. The Pasadena Times notes in her obituary that Jones donated to cancer research. Jones died in December 2009 at age 90.

1950s --- Actress Joi Lansing --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

1950s — Actress Joi Lansing — Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

Joi Lansing– Buxom blond B-movie actress Joi Lansing died due to breast cancer in 1972 at age 43. Many obituaries said Lansing died from leukemia.

The book “Joi Lansing:A Body to Die For” by Alexis Hunter says Lansing had both breast and ovarian cancer, which potentially was fueled by Premarian Lansing was taking to reduce aging.

Lansing’s friend Frank Sinatra paid for hospital bills, according to the book Comfort and Joi By Joseph Dougherty.

Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy-  Once called the Queen of Hollywood and The Perfect Wife, Loy was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s. She had a double mastectomy, one breast in 1975 and the other in 1979, according to LifeTime TV. Loy passed away in 1993 at age 88.


Hattie McDaniel– Actress Hattie McDaniel, best known for her role in “Gone with the Wind” and the first African American to win an Academy Award, died from breast cancer in 1952. McDaniel had just started filming the television series “The Beulah Show” but passed away at age 57 after just three episodes.

When she died, McDaniel stated that she wanted her ex-husband Larry Daniels to only receive $1 and the rest of her money go to her brother Sam McDaniel, according to The Margaret Mitchell Encyclopedia by Anita Price Davis. She wanted to be buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but was denied burial by owner Jules Roth because she was black. She was buried in Rosedale. In 1999, the new owner offered to move her body to Hollywood Forever, her family refused and a received a pink and white monument was built there in her honor, according to “Laugh Be a Lady” By Darryl J. Littleton, Tuezdae Littleton. TV role was taken over by Louise Beavers.

1950's --- Russian American actress, screenwriter and producer Alla Nazimova. --- Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Alla Nazimova- Silent actress Alla Nazimova survived breast cancer in the late 1930s. As she was starting to renew her former popularity on the stage, this was cut short by her illness. Nazimova reportedly had surgery for breast cancer in 1938, according to The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy By Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, Robert A. Schanke.

She said about her mastectomy, “It hit me like a stroke of lightening, it cut short not only my health but also my career,” according to Passing Performances By Robert A. Schanke, Kim Marra. Nazimova died in July 1945 at age 66.

16 Feb 1967 --- Portrait of Actress Lynn Redgrave --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

16 Feb 1967 — Portrait of Actress Lynn Redgrave — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Lynn Redgrave- Sister of actress Vanessa Redgrave and known for her role in the film “Georgy Girl,” Lynn Redgrave died due to breast cancer in 2010 at age 67, according to her New York Times obituary. Redgrave was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer 2001 and had a mastectomy and chemotherapy in 2003, according to a 2009 New York Times article on the actress.

“It’s been around forever. Not forever, but a long time. And I just go on working. I have lived with cancer now for four years,” she said in 2009.

ca. 1940s --- Publicity portrait of actress Rosalind Russell. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rosalind Russell- Actress Rosalind Russell died due to breast cancer, coupled with rheumatoid arthritis in 1976 at age 69, according to her obituary. Russell was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1960s, 15 years prior to her death and lived with arthritis for six years.

“If I beat this rap, I’ll search for a cure for the rest of my life,” Russell said.

She had a mastectomy in 1961, but the cancer later returned. She started chemotherapy in 1975, which worked for eight months but wasn’t successful in the last two months of her life, according to her obituary. One obituary said she had stomach chancer.

When Russell received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1973 at the Academy Awards, she thanks her friends for taking care of her, while she was “not quite well.”

1955 --- Actress Susan Strasberg --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

Susan Strasberg- Actress and daughter of acting coach Lee Strasberg, Susan Strasberg died in 1999 at age 60 due to breast cancer.

Strasberg treated her disease holistically with Levashov’s physical healing method rather than going through traditional medicine or having a mastectomy,  according to When Good Thinking Goes Bad: How Your Brain Can Have a Mind of Its Own By Todd C. Riniolo.

“She was diagnosed with [breast] cancer a few years ago but it was in remission totally,” said her stepmother, Anna Strasberg in her Los Angeles Times obituary. “We really have no answers here. I think Susan truly believed she was OK. She didn’t make any plans for dying. She just made plans for living.”

1933 --- Actress Gloria Stuart --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

Gloria Stuart- Gloria Stuart was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late-1980s and was a breast cancer survivor.

“She did not believe in illness. She paid no attention to it, and it served her well,” said her daughter Sylvia Thompson. “She was a breast cancer survivor but she just paid no attention to illness. She was a very strong woman and had other fish to fry.”

Stuart passed away at age 100 in 2010 due to lung cancer.


Shirley Temple– Shirley Temple Black found a lump on her left breast in 1972 at age 44, according to a New York Times magazine article from 2014.

Temple was one of the first well-known women to speak out about her breast cancer. According to the article, during this time many women automatically were only given the option of a mastectomy, even when a biopsy was an option. She wasn’t going to let this happen to her. She insisted only the breast tissue removed.

The American Cancer Society spoke out against what Temple did, but she paved the way for women taking control of their medical care.

Temple held a news conference from her hospital bed after the procedure to help other women, and received 5,000 thank you cards from women afterwards.

Actress Vivian Vance

Vivian Vance- “I Love Lucy” star died at age 66 in 1977. While most of her obituaries do not detail that she had breast cancer, sources such as I Had a Ball: My Friendship with Lucille Ball by Michael Z. Stern say she did. Her agent said she had been ill for “quite some time.”

“I have lost one of the best friends I have ever had and the world has lost one of the great performers of television, stage and film,” Lucille Ball said when Vance died.

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