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. 

"We're all scared of breast cancer. But the American Cancer Society tells us that among women whose breast cancer is diagnosed at an early stage and is localized, 99% survive more than five years. That's why it's so important to get the message out and tell women to see their doctors regularly and get a mammogram every year if they're over the age of 40."

Elizabeth’s breast cancer protection plan
Be active—and eat right. “I try to follow alow-fat diet and stay active,” says Elizabeth.

Why it might help you: In a recent study published in Cancer, researchers found that women who worked out 10 to 19 hours per week experienced a 30% reduced risk of breast cancer. A benefit was also found for fewer hours of exercise. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends being active for 45 to 60 minutes on five or more days of the week. That will help keep your weight in check, which is important because excess pounds can boost your risk of breast cancer. Cutting back on your fat intake can also help.

Get screened. “Evelyn Lauder made me promise that I would have an annual mammogram once I hit 40—and, in fact, she gave me my first one for my birthday present that year,” says Elizabeth. “I feel really nervous before every mammogram, and I feel physically sick when waiting for the result. Luckily, so far, everything has been good, but it’s nail-biting time. However, I am comforted by the fact that I was tested only a year before. So if anything were found, it would hopefully be small and treatable.”

Why it might help you: Annual mammograms starting at age 40 can detect tumors before they can be felt—and help reduce deaths from breast cancer, according to the ACS. Women should also have a clinical breast exam (performed by a healthcare provider) annually.

Know your breasts. Elizabeth is a firm believer in self-exams. “I know many women who discovered their own tumors by self-examination,” she says.

Why it might help you: Regularly examining your breasts helps you become familiar with how they normally look and feel so you can detect any abnormalities more easily. Report any unusual changes—such as a lump, skin dimpling, and nipple pain, redness or discharge other than breast milk—to your healthcare provider immediately, recommends the ACS. For step-by-step instructions, go to cancer.org.

Ask about genetic testing. If breast cancer runs in your family, consider getting tested to find out if you carry one of the genes, BRCA1 or BRCA2. “There is no hereditary breast cancer in my family,” says Elizabeth. “However, I have a girlfriend who carries the gene and, after having her children, had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery as a preventive measure.”

Why it might help you:
 If you carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, you’ll be screened differently than if you’re at average risk. The ACS recommends getting mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests starting at age 30. Some women choose to have surgery to remove both breasts before cancer develops; this can reduce the risk of cancer by 90% or more, according to the ACS.

November 2012