When life delivers a blow, actor Gabrielle Union doesn't sit around and stew. Instead, she takes action. Case in point: In 2005, she discovered that her close friend Kristen Martinez, then 31, had stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Without skipping a beat, Union rallied behind Martinez and her family to arrange treatment that could boost Martinez's chances of survival.
"We were all like, 'We're going to get her cured,'" Union says. "Let's go to Mexico or let's go to Europe -- whoever was doing cutting-edge work. As long as we could find the funds, let's do it."
Because it was late-stage cancer, Martinez didn't have a minute to waste. She thought her odds would be best with progressive treatment and clinical trials. But because they were considered experimental, her insurance didn't cover them. So Union plunged into grassroots fundraising. She hosted casino nights and auctioned off high-ticket items to help her friend pay for the care she wanted.
After Martinez completed a clinical trial, things began to look up, and then suddenly the cancer seemed to be gone. "It looked like a miracle happened. Her hair was growing back. She was gaining her weight back. She looked amazing. It was like she was cured," Union says.
But instead, less than a year later, the cancer was anything but gone. In 2010, 5 years after her diagnosis, Kristen Martinez died.
"It had never occurred to me that she was not going to beat it," says Union, 43, who stars in the BET television series Being Mary Jane and has appeared in movies like Top Five and Bring It On. "I guess nobody Googled what 'metastatic' means. We didn't realize that the prognosis is sort of built into the diagnosis. Our best bet was just extending her life. But we didn’t know that at the time."
Do earlier diagnoses make a difference?
Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. While some treatments can help some women with metastatic breast cancer live longer, the disease is not curable, says Katherine Crew, MD, an oncologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center. By the time Martinez received her diagnosis, cancer cells had traveled from her breast to her bones.
Would the outcome be different if Martinez had discovered her cancer sooner? Maybe. "The earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the likelihood of cure," Crew says. When caught early, it typically hasn't spread.
Many doctors believe tests that detect breast cancer, like mammograms, can save thousands of lives every year. But there's controversy about what the guidelines should be.
The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms beginning at age 45 --and for women at high risk, an annual mammogram along with MRI. But not everyone agrees. "There is no consensus about whether screening average-risk women ages 40 to 49 years is beneficial," Crew says.
Some doctors advise breast self-exams, but many do not. Some organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, don't recommend them, citing lack of evidence that they are effective.
"It's important to recognize symptoms such as breast lumps," Crew says, noting that is especially true for young women who don't get regular screenings. Other symptoms include breast pain, nipple pain, swelling, skin irritation, redness, nipple retraction, and nipple discharge. Many experts urge women to know their bodies and if something doesn't feel right, talk to a doctor.
Sadly, Martinez had symptoms -- pain in her side and back -- but put off seeing a doctor. With a recent work promotion, new apartment, and budding relationship, her life was on overdrive. "Everything was more important than these little nagging aches and pains," Union recalls. By the time Martinez saw a doctor, her cancer was already in a late stage.
Union adds, "Right around the time it was close to the end, her mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Shortly after Kristen passed, her mom passed. ... I've seen [cancer]. It's an evil, nondiscriminatory disease. It's brutal."
Cindy Fletcher, who runs an outreach program to Latinas for the breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen, says this is common. "Women are so concerned about everyone else in their lives, they don't take the time to care about themselves," she says. She adds that in communities she works with, women often face a host of barriers to care, like language and cultural differences, insurance gaps, limited access, and misinformation. "Their screening rate is less. So they may be detecting it later," she says.
Unfortunately, late detection can be particularly devastating to women like Martinez, who was young and Latina. "On average, younger women tend to have more aggressive breast cancers," Crew says. When Latina women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they tend to have more advanced-stage tumors. While African-American women tend to have lower breast cancer rates than whites, they're more likely to die from the disease.
Several organizations are pushing to get the word out to groups at particular risk. Komen funds over 530 programs to educate, screen, diagnose, and treat the Latina community. The Young Survival Coalition recently created a diversity strategy to promote outreach to the Latina, African-American, and LGBT communities.
Union joined the cause early on. In 2008, she became a Global Ambassador for Komen, leveraging her celebrity to raise awareness about breast cancer and encourage others to join the cause. She appeared in public service announcements to educate and urge women to get screenings. The same year, she joined Komen to open Ghana's first breast health hospital.
After losing Martinez, Union continued full steam ahead. In 2010, she formed "Gabby's Circle of Promise," a Race for the Cure team in her friend's honor. And in 2012, she became a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, launching an initiative to encourage more women to get tested for breast cancer.
Today, Union continues to advocate for women's health. She works with Planned Parenthood to promote affordable wellness programs and runs Komen's Race for the Cure whenever possible. Her cause work is more challenging now because her schedule is packed solid. She's filming the fourth season of Being Mary Jane and has three movies coming out: The Birth of a Nation, Almost Christmas, and Sleepless. She is also launching a line of watches for Invicta and has her own wine label, Vanilla Puddin.
When she's not working, she's in full-on family mode. In 2014, she married professional basketball player Dwyane Wade. So far, she says, things are going smashingly. "He's my best friend -- at least right now. Talk to me in a few years," she says with a laugh.
Not only is Union a new wife, she's also a new mom. When she and Wade tied the knot, she became a stepmom to his sons Zaire, 14, and Zion, 9, and his nephew Dahveon, 15. "I lucked out. They're loving kids that are appreciative of my consistency," she says. "Being a stepparent is probably one of the more thankless jobs. It's hard to figure out: How much do I do? When do I pull back? It's a very challenging tap dance."
With Wade's recent transfer to the Chicago Bulls, the entire brood is in the midst of a major transition -- relocating from Miami to the Midwest. Union says it's particularly daunting for Zaire and Dahveon, who just entered high school. But she says they're up for it, and she'll be there to ease them over the bumps.
A Lasting Legacy
While Union is committed to her family and career, she stops short of neglecting herself. "I set boundaries," she says. "I want to make sure I'm as healthy as possible."
To stay fit, Union works out with a personal trainer. A favorite calorie-crusher is a basketball-themed workout that taps her competitive spirit -- perfect for the athletic Union, who played basketball and soccer and ran track in high school.
She visits her doctor regularly and checks on anything that doesn't feel right. "Some could say I'm a hypochondriac," she says. "I investigate everything -- any aches, pains, creaks. I'll go see doctors and specialists. I'm like, If I'm paying for this insurance, I'm going to use it -- all of it."
Her breast health is no exception. "I get mammograms once a year. I started getting them in my 30s, due to Kristen. I just wanted to stay on top of it. Yes, it's uncomfortable. Yes, it's a little weird. But it can literally save your life," she says.
If there's one lesson Union learned from her friend, it's that no matter how busy her life gets, no matter how difficult it can be to carve out time, neglecting her health simply is not an option. "I prioritize my own health," Union says. "I have to make sure my health is great so I'm around to help my family."
Gabrielle's Healthy-Living Plan
"I started doing Pilates for Bad Boys 2 and I just loved how my body transformed. I zone out, find that little bit of peace for an hour, then go back to my crazy life."
"I drink a gallon of water a day. It's actually not as hard as it sounds."
Banish sugary drinks
Exclusive extras from our interview with Gabrielle Union:
On politics and equal health care for women:
All women deserve the same access to quality health care. There's all kinds of women slipping through the cracks: Our mothers, our sisters, our grandmothers, our wives. To discount their need is criminal and un-American."
On basketball workouts:
"I really enjoy them. They've challenged me in a way that I haven't been challenged since I was a kid. I look forward to doing better, making more free throws at the end of a workout than I did the day before, and bench pressing more than I did last week."
On fitness trends:
"I do basic cardio. On occasion, I'll work in some boxing and some kickboxing. I don't do it as much as I used to, when it was a big fad. Every so often I get a bug up my butt and I'll do the latest craze. I did cardio barre for a hot second -- and then I hated it."
On working out when you're famous:
"If I'm in L.A., I'll hike. Then the paparazzi shows up. Come on now! I'm trying to commune with nature. You look nuts and there are these pictures of you everywhere, looking crazy. You're not thinking about smiling for the cameras. You left your house like, I'm just trying to hike. I'm not trying to prepare for the catwalk."
On watching Wade's NBA games:
"My husband plays 82 games a year, so I'm physically at some games. The ones I can't be at I'm either watching on TV or I'm following along on my apps that let me watch it live. Part of that is I'm a sports fan, and part of that is my husband wants feedback after the game. So I kind of have to pay attention a little closer than if I were drinking at a sports bar watching Monday Night Football."