Gabrielle Union: Fighting Fear, Fighting Breast Cancer

This actress is carrying on her best friend’s crusade to end breast cancer, once and for all.

Ellen Byron
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Gabrielle Union Breast Cancer

Fighting fear has been a bit of a crusade for 41-year-old actress Gabrielle Union. Whether it’s battling against stereotypes in Hollywood, overcoming self-doubt or simply getting the courage to speak up about the issues she feels passionate about, Gabrielle is no stranger to the emotion.

But nothing has taught her the importance of fighting fear quite like her best friend’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2005. “It was fear that killed her; she admitted that to me,” Gabrielle says of her friend Kristen Martinez, who passed away in 2010. “She’d experienced pain in her chest for six months, but delayed visiting a doctor until it was too late. She was afraid of what it could be. She ignored it, hoping it would go away on its own, until the pain became unbearable and she finally went in. By the time she was able to get it checked out, it had developed into Stage IV breast cancer.”

Gabrielle—who had then risen to star status thanks to roles in hit films like Bring It On and Bad Boys II—was shocked by how little she and those around her knew about the disease.

“I knew nothing,” she bluntly declares. “Absolutely nothing. In high school health class, they’d passed around a fake breast that was like an implant, and they’d put a little bead in there so you could feel what you’re looking for in a self-exam. But we weren’t taking it seriously. There wasn’t enough talk about young people and breast health. We thought of cancer as something that happens to older people, period.”

While Kristen was still fighting for her life, both she and Gabrielle became breast cancer advocates by volunteering for organizations like the Young Survival Coalition, Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood. Gabrielle even joined a mission with Susan G. Komen to open Ghana’s first breast health hospital, the HopeXchange Medical Center, which opened in 2008.

When she visited Kristen for the last time, Gabrielle made a promise to carry on the work they had done together. “Kristen had become an activist, not only for herself but for all women,” says the actress. “I promised not to stop until there was a cure.”

Gabrielle has kept her promise to Kristen. While her busy schedule includes back-to-back film roles and starring on the TV series, Being Mary Jane, she still finds time to serve as an ambassador for Planned Parenthood and the Young Survival Coalition, and as a Global Ambassador for Susan G. Komen’s Circle of Promise, which aims to educate and support women of color. Gabrielle is determined to see that her close friend “did not die in vain. People will learn from her life and her death.”

Gabrielle’s tips for breast health
Kristen’s battle against breast cancer not only inspired Gabrielle to become an activist; it also encouraged her to make healthy changes for herself. Here, some of the ways she fights off cancer that could also work for you… 

Know your family history. Gabrielle has found that a lot of cancer diagnoses are associated with shame. “People hide them,” she says. “As much as you can, learn about whether or not you have a family history of breast cancer. If you do, a lot of insurance plans will allow for mammograms before 40.”

Be your own advocate. “You have only one life and you have to treat it as precious,” says the actress. “Never skip a self-exam or let finances prevent you from checking out anything. In addition to Planned Parenthood, there are so many other clinics around the country for women who fall between the gaps. But it’s up to you to find the help you need.”

To see if there is a facility for low-cost mammograms near you, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s Mammography Program website at or see if your local Planned Parenthood chapter provides them by typing in your ZIP code at 

Share what you know. “I’ve shown women how to do a breast self-exam while you’re in the shower,” says Gabrielle. “Share info with your circle of friends. Maybe you know something your best friend doesn’t, or vice versa. Either way, you might save a life. I don’t believe in too much information, I’d rather be oversaturated with it.”

Meditate (in a quirky place!). Chronically high stress levels have been linked to a number of diseases, including heart disease, autoimmune conditions and cancer. “You can deal with day-to-day stress if your core is centered and at peace,” Gabrielle says. “I find that through meditation, yoga and quiet time.”

The actress offers a quirky place to find that inner peace—the bathroom! “It’s one of the only places where people respect your privacy,” she says with a laugh, “so take a little extra time in there. Fake a gastrointestinal issue if you have to!”


October 2013