Cancer didn't catch Christina Applegate unprepared. Because her mother had battled both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, Applegate had been going for regular mammograms since the age of 30. "But when I turned 36, my doctor said that my breasts were just too dense for mammography alone, and he referred me for screening MRIs at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center," she recalls.
Just a few months before she learned she herself had breast cancer, the actor got a shocking insight into the struggles faced by other young women who are also at high risk for the disease -- and who don't have the resources of a Hollywood celebrity.
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"After my second MRI, the patient relations woman who'd been taking care of me for years told me that a lot of high-risk young women were opting not to have screening MRIs because they couldn't afford it -- they cost about $3,000 each -- and insurance wouldn't cover it. It really angered me!"
Less than a year later, in 2008, Applegate -- who had landed the starring role in ABC's comedy series Samantha Who? -- was diagnosed with breast cancer, an early-stage cancer caught with the help of those MRIs. "I was so lucky. I was really diligent about my testing, I never missed a time I was supposed to go," she says. "There was no cancer detected at one three-month visit, and when I went back for another MRI three months later, there it was. The cancer actually became detectable in me within three months. Had I waited six months or a year, who knows how far it would have spread?"
Right Action for Women
Determined not to let other young women find out the potentially deadly answer to that question, Applegate -- who is now pregnant, with her fiance, Martyn Lenoble, a Dutch bass player -- was barely out of treatment when she began putting together a new foundation, Right Action for Women (RAW, rightactionforwomen.org). RAW, an Entertainment Industry Foundation initiative, has raised money and awareness for support programs that provide free or low-cost screening MRIs to younger women who, like Applegate, have a high risk of developing breast cancer because of significant family histories and cancer-causing genetic mutations.
"When I was able to find my cancer in the stage I did, my passion for wanting to do something for these women was beyond what I could express," she says. The past two years have been a big fundraising push for RAW -- and now, at last, the foundation has reached the point where it can start to offer fully funded MRIs for high-risk young women on a small scale at a handful of hospitals in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
"We're starting small, but we want to go national," Applegate says. "We'd also like to start working with places that will offer these women a certain number of MRIs for free." This service is especially welcome, says Applegate, "because screening MRIs are about $3,000 each!"