Elizabeth Hurley: Breast Cancer Ambassador

The actress shares how the loss of her grandmother led her to travel the world to raise awareness of breast cancer—and to protect her own health.

Ellen Byron

Elizabeth Hurley's beloved grandmother had a heartbreaking secret. "She was 75 when she found a [breast] lump, and she was too scared to tell anyone about it," recalls the 47-year-old actress, model and beachwear designer. "I think she was hoping it would go away if she ignored it. At that time [in 1987], breast cancer was a dirty word that was only whispered."

After a mastectomy, Elizabeth's grandmother passed away in 1992. "We were all devastated," recalls the actress, who is known for her roles in the films Austin PowersInternational Man of MysteryBedazzled and The Weight of Water. Elizabeth's loss galvanized her to become one of the world's best-known advocates for breast cancer research and prevention. In 1995, she became the spokesmodel for the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, whose senior vice president, the late Evelyn Lauder, cocreated the pink ribbon (the symbol of breast cancer awareness) and formed the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). Since then, Elizabeth has spent every October traveling the world to raise awareness of—and funds for—the disease. Two limited-edition pink lipsticks have been named after her—Elizabeth Pink and Elizabeth Shimmer Pink—and their sales benefit the BCRF. To date, the organization has raised $350 million and funds 186 research scientists worldwide. "Today, we shout about breast cancer from the rooftops," Elizabeth says.

One of Elizabeth's favorite Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign events is the annual Global Landmarks Illumination Initiative, in which famous monuments around the world are bathed in pink lights during the month of October. "In fact, we are in the Guinness Book of World Records for illuminating the highest number of landmarks for a cause within 24 hours!" says Elizabeth. "The last building we lit to clinch this record was the Empire State Building, and Evelyn [Lauder] and I lit this together. I will never forget how emotional we felt as we did this."

Elizabeth's dedication has been honored. In 2009, she was given the BCRF's Humanitarian Award for her efforts. Two researchers at the Royal Marsden Hospital in the U.K. received grants in Elizabeth's name. "I was very touched," says Elizabeth. In addition to her breast cancer advocacy work, Elizabeth is devoted to raising her 10-year-old son, Damian. She recently guest-starred as Chace Crawford's cougar girlfriend on Gossip Girl, and she's expanding her popular swimwear line, Elizabeth Hurley Beach. Still, raising awareness of breast cancer and fighting for a cure will always be a top priority for Elizabeth, who often reminisces about her grandmother. "We all adored her," Elizabeth says. "She was a school teacher and was extremely energetic and lots of fun. One of my earliest memories is of her and lots of her sisters sitting around the dining table, crying with laughter."

Elizabeth hopes her efforts will prevent other women from keeping their breast lumps a secret. "I'm passionate about talking to women about their breast health," she says. 

November 2012