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Fox's Health Crusade A Celebrity Tradition

Michael J. Fox hasn't hidden his 15-year battle with Parkinson's disease. The way the actor sees it, he's obligated to use his fame to help find a cure for the illness — even if doing so means controversy.

In an exclusive interview on the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, Fox told Couric, "If it takes seeing a face people recognize, and they say, 'Hey, I know that guy,' maybe they'll realize that they know other people (touched by the disease)."

The actor joins a long list of celebrities who have been touched by illness or severe injury and then used the experience to raise public awareness about their disease.

Fox is currently at the center of a controversy after taping a political ad for Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill that promotes her support for embryonic stem-cell research. The ad has raised an uproar from those opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, including talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. But that doesn't deter Fox one bit.

"If that means taking a beating from that faction of the media, that's fine," Fox said. "If bringing the message means getting roughed up a little bit, I'm happy to be that guy."

Fox says that his Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research has raised more than $85 million for research into Parkinson's disease.

The late Christopher Reeve is perhaps the most famous celebrity advocate to turn personal tragedy into a public health crusade. The actor, best known for his role as "Superman" in the film franchise, became an advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries after a horseback accident in 1995 left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.

"I felt I needed to do something — not just for myself but for everyone else in the same condition," Reeve said in the official biography on the Christopher Reeve Foundation Web site. "Even if I had wanted to (which I didn't), I would never be able to forget the other patients I had met during rehab. I had seen too much of their struggles and pain. I couldn't go home, devote my life to myself and my family, and ignore the larger picture."

Cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer 10 years ago, and since then he's been active in the fight against the disease. This summer, Armstrong challenged Congress to make solving the mysteries of cancer a national priority and find the political will to bolster funding for cancer research, prevention and treatment.

Through his Lance Armstrong Foundation, the cyclist built awareness about the disease by distributing more approximately 55 million yellow wristbands to people around the world.

Basketball star Magic Johnson shocked the sports world in 1991 when he announced he was HIV positive. The news that a heterosexual male with the strength of an athlete could be infected by the virus got the message out quickly that HIV/AIDS does not have boundaries.

Since then, Johnson has remained healthy and has worked tirelessly as a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore has was diagnosed with Type 1 or "juvenile" diabetes 35 years ago. She's now the International Chairman of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

Many famous women have been open about their battles with breast cancer, including feminist Gloria Steinem, singer Melissa Etheridge, actress Jaclyn Smith, actress Suzanne Somers, and singer Sheryl Crow.

The rate of people who were screened for colon cancer jumped by more than 20 percent after Couric showed her colonoscopy on NBC's "Today" show, according to a study Archives of Internal Medicine. Couric has advocated colon cancer screening since her husband, TV legal analyst Jay Monahan, died of the disease in 1998.

Like Fox, former first lady Nancy Reagan is an activist for expanded stem cell research. Her motivation came from caring for her husband during his long battle with Alzheimer's, another disease that may be cured through stem-cell research.

"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," she told CBS News during a May, 2004 fundraiser for juvenile diabetes. "Because of this I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."

Right now, it's Fox that is at the center of the firestorm in the battle for stem cell research. But, he doesn't feel the least bit alone.

He pointed out that millions of Americans have either been "touched by incurable illness, or know somebody who has an incurable illness or loves somebody that has an incurable illness."

He believes that when a celebrity speaks out about their disease, it reminds people of those close to them who have been touched by incurable illness. He hopes that, as a result, others will join his fight.
By Judy Faber

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