You could say that Christina Applegate knows how to work a roomÃ¢â‚¬”even a hospital room. When the actress was in the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles recovering from breast cancer surgery last year, her wicked sense of humor never failed her. "I laughed more in the hospital than I ever have in my life, making fun of all the weird things that were happening to me," she remembers. "My friends would walk in with this sad look, and I would throw something at them and say, 'Come on! This isn't the end of the world!'"
That's for sure. Today Applegate is the picture of health and radiance. Barefoot and dressed in a cotton tank and ankle-Ã‚Âgrazing skirt, her buttery blond hair swept into two thick braids, she looks serene perched on a white sofa in her L.A. home for our interview. Her live-in boyfriend, musician Martyn Lenoble, 40, putters in the kitchen, and Tallulah, her dachshund-mini Doberman mix, naps on her lap.
Christina was sitting in this very spot when she learned she had cancer. An MRI had revealed something "funky" in her left breast, and a biopsy confirmed that the mass was malignant. Her oncologist had not intended to deliver the news over the phone, but when she called and asked her to come in to "talk," Christina demanded to know the results then and there, because at home "you can fall on the floor and cry," she says. Christina did just that until her mother, Nancy Priddy, arrived. "I lay in her lap and just screamed and screamed," she says. (Nancy had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 38, when Christina was just 7 years old.) "Even though it ran in my family, I never in a million years thought it would happen to me. I was scared shitless."
Facing the newsÃ¢â‚¬”and the public
The call set in motion a terrifying and life-changing chain of events. Because she had a family history of breast cancer, Christina then decided to be tested for a BRCA mutation. (Women with a mutation of these genes have a 40 to 85 percent risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer; it also increases the odds that the cancer will reappear if you do get it.) After the test came back positive, Christina elected to have a double mastectomy; reconstructive surgery followed in NovemberÃ¢â‚¬”just four days before her 37th birthday. "I've never had a year where I got hit hard that much," she confesses. "The amount of things that happened in a really short period of timeÃ¢â‚¬”devastating."
In August 2008, less than a month after the double mastectomy, rumors about her diagnosis were leaked to the press, forcing her to go public with her experience before she felt strong enough to talk about it. The following month, she attended the Emmy Awards, as a best actress in a comedy series nominee for her role as a sassy amnesiac on the since-cancelled sitcom Samantha Who?, in a diaphanous blue Reem Acra gown that had been reconstructed at the bodice to conceal her missing breasts. (She received a second Emmy nod for her show this year.) "It was my coming out, I guess," she says. "I knew everyone would be looking. I just thought, 'Please don't cry, please don't cry, please don't cry.'"
She kept it together, and once she did start sharing, she found that words began to come more easily. "Now I can talk about the ugly parts of it without losing it," says Christina, who has launched a foundation, Right Action for Women, to fund MRIs for high-risk young women who are uninsured or can't get their insurance companies to cover the expensive testing. "I found out that there was something wrong after my MRI," she says. "Had it not been for [the test], I don't know what would've happened." The organization has also given her a chance to connect with other survivors. Says Christina: "There's a real kinship when we meet. We hold each other tight because we know where the other has been: to hell and back."
Christina has also found other ways to spread the word. Last year she joined breast cancer survivors Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge onstage at a "Stand Up to Cancer" benefit in L.A. "Backstage, Jennifer Aniston said something like, 'I don't like having to see my three girlfriends up there, but I am so proud of you.' That was nice," she says.
She's also the ambassador for Lee National Denim Day, a fundraiser for breast cancer research held every October (she's also wearing a pair of Lee's on this very cover). "It's good to encourage others, but if you don't feel sorry for yourself once in a while, you're just not normal," Christina says. "I'm grateful that I caught it before I needed chemo, but the whole experience really sucked."
Her candor extends to her take on the new breasts too. "It's really hard, because they just aren't the sameÃ¢â‚¬”and I had really good ones," she says with a laugh. "If you have boobs you don't like, you can go and choose the size you want, and then get a brand-new present. But it's different [when it's not your choice]. And they feel really weird. There's a numbness--my back is still numb. Even exercising feels strange. It'll take two years [for the sensation] to come back. But I hold on to the fact that I don't have to wear a bra, which is great!"
Post-recovery, she's focused on restoring balance and banishing all stress from her life. "I gained 10 pounds [after] the surgery, so I'm trying to get back in shape," Christina says. Her plan includes high-octane boot-camp fitness classes and a macrobiotic diet of mainly kale, rice, beans, and tofu. "I allow myself a piece of pizza every once in a while, and I'm not filled with shame when I do," she says. Nor did she feel any remorse after eating untold plates of fresh mozzarella and tomato on a recent jaunt to Italy with Martyn. "If I see another Caprese salad, I'm going to lose it! We kind of went balls out."
Other temptations, though, have triggered a much more serious backlash. Last April, a photograph of Christina smoking a cigarette appeared on the webÃ¢â‚¬”a hypocritical move for a cancer survivor and advocate. The incident still makes her cringe. "I'm a human being, and I make mistakes. I fall back on things," she says of the habit. "[Not smoking] is always a struggle."
Living in the moment
Though Christina Applegate literally grew up on TVÃ¢â‚¬”she was 3 months old for her first role on Days of Our Lives, alongside her actress momÃ¢â‚¬”there's still a part of her that's squeamish about being in the spotlight. "I'm shy and don't like all eyes on me," says the actress, whose mother and record-producer father divorced soon after she was born. "If I go to a party, I'm uncomfortable. I'd rather just stay home, watch an old Katharine Hepburn movie, put a fire in the fireplace, and hang out with Martyn."
Martyn, as Christina is quick to point out, has been her rock throughout the ordeal. "I don't think I would have been able to get through any of it without him," she says of the Dutch-born bass player, whom she first met at an L.A. music club over 10 years ago. The couple reconnected last year after running into each other at a local children's hospital where both happened to be volunteering. "He's just a well-adjusted, happy person. All the love and calm he adds to my life is really valuable," she says, beaming.
Talk of recent proposal rumors makes her shake her head and sighÃ¢â‚¬”though she admits that she would like to have a family one day. "Can a girl please wear a ring on her left hand and not have it be all, 'Is she engaged?'" asks Christina, whose four-year marriage to actor Johnathon Schaech ended in 2005.
Right now, Applegate would rather focus on the day-to-day than look far into the future. "I've never been one to pull the covers over my head. I have to push through things," she says. To help her cope, she has adopted a set of life rules, some serious ("If you get too caught up in the outer, you forget about the inner") and others kind of silly ("If you know you can't fit into those jeans, then don't even try to put them on")
And then there are those messages she sends to herself. On her bathroom mirror she has written empowering mantras in siren-red lipstick. I am a miracle of health, reads one; I am joy, proclaims another. If there's anything left in that little tube of red, she might consider adding one more message: I am an inspiration.