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Last Updated: 10/01/2006

Actress Gabrielle Union learned what it means to be supportive when a longtime pal was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Being a friend to someone with breast cancer has taught Gabrielle Union two things: when to shut up, and when to speak out until people start to wish you had a mute button.

The actress has been doing each in turn ever since her close friend Kristen Martinez, 32, was diagnosed last year. “Half of being supportive is simply listening,” says Union, 33. “You learn more when you zip it.”

Union and Martinez have been part of the same tight circle since they were teenagers in Northern California. Union headed south to college, then built a career in Hollywood, acting in movies such as “Bring It On” and “The Honeymooners.” (She is in this month’s “Running With Scissors.”)

Martinez moved to New York City and eventually became East Coast regional merchandiser for Urban Outfitters. But the two kept in touch by phone and saw each other when they could.

In July 2005, Martinez felt a lump in her left breast. “I thought, this feels weird. But I wasn’t alarmed about it at the time,” Martinez says. “It had never occurred to me that I could get sick.” Martinez also was extremely busy – in the space of two months, she broke up with her boyfriend, moved into her own place and got promoted into a job that involved traveling up and down the East Coast¬ – so she didn’t go to a doctor immediately.

The appointment she did make for September was rescheduled by the doctor, and it was awhile before she could get another. “Part of it was that she didn’t have time to spend an afternoon,” Union says, giving an explanation many young women can relate to. “You self-diagnose – it’s just a muscle pull or whatever. You’re also thinking, I’m young; breast cancer is something that happens to women my mom’s age.”

As the weeks passed, Martinez grew more concerned but immersed herself in her hectic work life. Ultimately it was six months before she got a firm diagnosis: advanced breast cancer. Ray Martinez, Kristen’s brother and Union’s best friend, called Union, sobbing, with the news. “I said, ‘Stage IV? Out of how many?’ And he said ‘IV.'”

When she heard about Martinez’s illness, Union instinctively went into fix-it mode. “I said, ‘So what are we doing about it?'” she recalls. “I was, like, let me get you into counseling. Let me figure out worker’s comp.” She looked into support groups and information networks that Martinez might find helpful. Union’s action-oriented response, she realizes, was partly due to the fact that she didn’t fully grasp how sick her friend was. “I consider myself highly educated, and I realized how ignorant I was about this disease,” Union says.

It was only after Martinez was deep into chemotherapy and radiation that Union allowed the gravity of the situation to sink in. Visiting Martinez in New York City, Union saw that she had little of her usual energy and had lost her dark, curly hair and even her brows and lashes. “I thought, OK, so now you look like a cancer patient,” Union says. What she said out loud, of course, was different: “I said, ‘We gotta get you some fly wigs! I’m calling Tyra! I’m calling Beyoncé!'”

An upbeat attitude can be hard to maintain. When someone you love gets breast cancer, you are also affected. Union was upset that Martinez didn’t get her lump checked for as long as she did, but she quickly put her own feelings about it into perspective. “You’re disappointed for selfish reasons, like, why would you do this to me? What am I supposed to do without you? But, of course, it’s not about you.”

Union tried to be responsive to her friend’s changing needs. Sometimes Martinez wanted to be alone or to sit quietly with Union. Other times she needed girl talk. Still other times practical support was the most helpful. “You are there to listen,” Union says. “Try to watch your friend’s reactions, and be perceptive.” She recommends curbing the instinct to fill uncomfortable conversational voids. “‘Well, when it happened to my aunt…’ starts to sound like ‘This one time, at band camp…'” she says.

Empathy is fine, she explains, but “unless I am going through it, I am never going to know everything she’s going through. When in doubt, just shush.” Martinez agrees and adds, “What is important is to not stop reaching out. It’s hard to ask for help, because you want to pretend like it’s not happening. But you really do need help.”

As Martinez fought her cancer, Union went into a money- and awareness-raising frenzy. “Crazily enough, people listen to celebrities,” Union says with a shrug. “You get asked stupid questions, like, ‘Who’s a better kisser – LL Cool J or Will Smith?’ It’s, like, ‘Who the hell cares? But let me tell you something that can save your life.'”

She and Ray Martinez, an events planner in Los Angeles, pulled together a party to collect cash for the Young Survival Coalition, which Kristen Martinez credits with providing her with invaluable support. Union was able to wrangle donations from companies, including Neutrogena (she’s a spokeswoman), as well as actress Kelly Monaco and other celebrity buddies. “I can say to my rich friends, ‘Can you fork over that Balenciaga bag?'” she jokes. “People want to be involved.”

Martinez’s cancer reinforced something Union learned the hard way at age 19, when she was raped at gunpoint while working in a shoe store in Los Angeles: Trust yourself. “When the man who raped me came into the store, my heart said run. But I was raised to be polite and not make others uncomfortable. Women are constantly second-guessing our instincts,” says Union, who has been open about what happened to her and has even testified before Congress about the importance of funding for rape crisis centers.

Especially when it comes to your health, Union says, “You know your body, and your body is telling you something is wrong. Stop pooh-poohing away your issues! We are given instincts for a reason.

“If you feel something’s amiss, go to the doctor. And if he says, ‘You’re too young to have breast cancer,’ you say, ‘OK, thank you,’ and who’s the next doctor on my list? Get a couple of opinions. Ignorance is not bliss – it only makes it worse later.”

Martinez’s treatments appear to be working – which has left the two friends cautiously optimistic. Radiation and chemotherapy have shrunk the tumor in her breast considerably, and she’s on a drug regimen to control the cancer. Martinez is working and has invested in a new home, which she’s looking forward to enjoying. If there’s a lesson to be learned, Martinez and Union agree, it’s this: Be proactive about your health.

“The feeling that something was wrong was there the entire time,” Martinez says. “Eventually I couldn’t mask my gut.” Adds Union, “If you think something’s not right, don’t wait. Figure it out and live in that reality, whatever it is. You will feel so much better knowing what that truth is.”

By Stephanie Dolgoff