Black and white portraits of Hattie McDaniel and Dusty Springfield

Metastatic Breast Cancer in Popular Culture

Did you know that Bette Davis, the legendary Hollywood screen actor, died of metastatic breast cancer? Probably not. She may have died nearly forty years ago, but even today the word metastatic is seldom used in popular culture, nor is the term, "stage IV".

Spreading awareness for MBC

How will we ever spread awareness of metastatic breast cancer when we do not even call it by its name? Let's take a look at metastatic breast cancer in popular culture, and pay homage to those who left behind great accomplishments before succumbing to the disease.

Theodora, Empress of the Byzantine Empire

Theodora ruled the Byzantine Empire alongside her husband, Justinian, in the fourth century. She was the daughter of a bear-keeper and came from a poor background as a child actor and brothel worker. She gave birth to her daughter around age fourteen. Theodora used her elevated societal status as an empress to improve the lives of poor women in the empire in various ways. According to some sources, it is believed that the first-ever recorded mastectomy was performed on her when her lump was discovered. When she died five years later in the year 548 AD it was said to be of breast cancer, which would mean it was metastatic breast cancer.1

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, Titanic survivor and businesswoman

According to SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context), Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon was a successful British dressmaker and columnist. She had a daughter, Esme, with her first husband, whom she divorced in 1893. Lucy, as she was called, began an at-home dressmaking business to support herself and Esme before marrying Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon in 1900. By 1912, her business was so successful she was sailing across the Atlantic to promote it in New York. It was at this time she also became a Titanic survivor, having boarded Lifeboat Number One with her husband and secretary. Lucy Duff-Gordon later died in 1935 of pneumonia, a "complication of breast cancer".2

Hattie McDaniel, first Black Oscar winner

Gone With The Wind star Hattie McDaniel, who played "Mammy" in the 1939's classic film, was born in Kansas in 1895 as the youngest of thirteen children of former slaves. She was in three hundred films and was the first Black Oscar winner for her role as Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel was also the first Black woman to sing on the radio in the USA and host a radio program. She earned not one but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her accomplishments in film and radio and was also commemorated on a postage stamp. Ms. McDaniel passed away in October 1952 of metastatic breast cancer.3

Rachel Carson, biologist and author

Biologist Rachel Carson wrote her famed book, Silent Spring, in 1962 while living with metastatic breast cancer. A fierce opponent of the use of pesticides to kill insects, Ms. Carson rose to fame with Silent Spring, among other works on the subject of nature and science. According to her literary agent, she knew about her diagnosis and had been living with cancer "for some years" before succumbing to the disease in April 1964.4

Bette Davis, Academy award-winning icon

According to her attorney, Ms. Davis passed away from breast cancer in October 1981 after it had begun to spread about one and half years earlier. Her death happened suddenly; she was in Paris accepting an award and passed away a couple of weeks later as her health quickly declined. Ms. Davis was initially an "early stager"; this is evident because she had a mastectomy five years earlier during her first bout with breast cancer.5 

V.C. Andrews, best-selling author

Beloved Flowers in the Attic gothic novelist Virginia "V.C." Andrews hailed from Portsmouth, Virginia. Ms. Andrews was in an accident as a teenager that damaged her spine and also lived with severe rheumatoid arthritis from an early age. These circumstances equated to her using a wheelchair or crutches often in life. Making the New York Times Bestsellers List several times, V.C. Andrews was also awarded the honor of Number One Best Selling Author of Popular Horror and Occult Paperback. Her other works included Gods of Green Mountain, Petals on the Wind, and My Sweet Audrina. Ms. Andrews died in December 1986 "after being diagnosed with breast cancer".6  

Audre Lorde, poet laureate and professor

Audre Lorde graduated from Hunter College and Columbia University and went on to have a successful career as a writer and lecturer. She taught at Hunter College, as well as lectured around the globe. As a Black lesbian feminist, Ms. Lorde served on the board of Feminist Press as well as other organizations to help the betterment of women, especially women of color. According to her obituary, Audre Lorde had lived with cancer for an astonishing 14 years. First written in 1980,  The Cancer Journals, documented the stages of her disease. Ms. Lorde went on to earn honorary doctorate degrees from multiple universities, become an award-winning author, and the New York State Poet Laureate in 1991. One year later, she passed away from metastatic breast cancer in November 1992. While her friend, Blanche Cook, states in her obituary that she died of liver cancer, it is more commonly believed that she meant breast cancer which had metastasized to her liver.7   

Dusty Springfield, singer and songwriter

The "Son of a Preacher Man" singer was born in England and rose to fame during the British Invasion of the 1960's. Her biggest hits included, Wishin' and Hopin', I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, and Son of a Preacher Man. Upon releasing her last album in 1995 entitled, A Very Fine Love, she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and treated with chemotherapy at Royal Marden Hospital. "I remember crying, thinking, I haven't got time to be ill", she said at the time. In February 1998 her breast cancer returned, and she passed away one year later in March 1999.8  

Living with metastatic breast cancer

There are many more famous names who have passed away from metastatic breast cancer, including Linda McCartney, animal rights activist and wife of Beatle Paul McCartney, Old Hollywood darling Ingrid Bergman, and adored modern-day actor Kelly Preston. It is interesting to take note that Bette Davis accepted an award weeks before her death. Rachel Carson wrote her famous book while living with metastatic breast cancer, and published it two years before dying. Audre Lorde was given one of the biggest honors of her career, Poet Laureate, just a year before her death. Dusty Springfield was initially diagnosed after her comeback album released. They were accomplished, successful, self-made women who worked hard at their craft until the end while living with metastatic breast cancer.

Taken from the world far too soon, they may be gone but they are not forgotten. Their songs, poems, novels, and films keep their memories alive in popular culture for generations to come.

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