Former First Lady Betty Ford's name and legacy will forever be linked with her namesake center for substance abuse and addiction, but her contributions to helping overcome the stigma of cancer are just as significant and predated some of her other positive impacts on American society, which also included the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.
When the widow of President Gerald R. Ford died last month at age 93 many of the headlines and tributes focused on her work with drug and alcohol abuse, but four years before her personal battles with addiction became public and eight years before the Betty Ford Center opened, Mrs. Ford became the first important public figure to utter the words “breast cancer,” following her diagnosis and radical mastectomy for the disease in September 1974 just months after her husband assumed the presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Public disclosure and openness were especially important then for a nation still reeling from the Nixon Administration's recent deceit and disgrace, and outspoken and unbridled Betty Ford characteristically stepped up and told the world that she had breast cancer, opening the door for future disclosures by Happy Rockefeller—then the wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller—just several weeks later, and news correspondent Betty Rollin the following year, as chronicled in her memoir First, You Cry.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker spoke with me as she was ready to depart for California to attend the private memorial service for Mrs. Ford, who was her friend, mentor, and role model.
“Betty was very important in my life, to the life of Komen for the Cure, and to the world. She was an amazing woman and always responded to our calls. She spoke so beautifully, and had a charisma and effect on people that was so reassuring and confident, especially for women [with breast cancer].”
Brinker said that when her sister Susan G. Komen (in whose memory and honor the organization was created) was first diagnosed in 1977 with the breast cancer that would claim her life, Susan found great inspiration from watching Betty Ford a few years earlier when photographers captured her throwing a football to the president following her surgery.
“Susan told me that if Betty could do it, then she could do it.”
Brinker also said that Mrs. Ford was one of the first to call her in 1984 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and told her that she knew “I would be frustrated and get sad, and cry and act out, but it should just be for that day and then I should think about what I'm doing and have to do and then go forward.
“Betty was always available for advice and counsel, and her announcement [about her cancer] was the tipping point. Until then no one else had the courage to come forward.”
Komen for the Cure honored Mrs. Ford with the first Betty Ford Award for outstanding contributions toward breast cancer awareness in 1982, the year that both Komen was founded and the Betty Ford Center opened.
“She came to our first fundraiser that year and continued to present the award for many years afterward, including to Nancy Reagan in 1988.”
Brinker also said that Komen for Cure “planned to do something for Betty” at its big event in October.
Jimmie Holland: Was a Watershed Event
Jimmie C. Holland, MD, founder of the field of psycho-oncology – who is now the Wayne E. Chapman Chair in Psychiatric Oncology and Attending Psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — often refers to Betty Ford's breast cancer revelation as one of the watershed events in public acceptance of cancer.
She said during a telephone interview that people began to see the beginning of survivorship back then and started to have more hope and that Mrs. Ford's courage contributed to diminishing the aura of the dread disease.
“She made a real difference, and really helped change the dialogue between patients and doctors. She was a good model of how one might want to or should deal with illness and helped women speak up for themselves.”
Dr. Holland said that Mrs. Ford's speaking openly about her diagnosis and treatment began to take away some of the fears associated with cancer and to open up opportunities for education that hadn't been there before.
“She helped empower women to ask and demand of doctors to tell them more about their diagnosis and treatment enabling those who wanted to be part of their treatment plan,” she said.
Diane Blum: Beginnings of National Breast Cancer Awareness
Diane Blum, MSW, first joined CancerCare in 1984 as Assistant Director of Social Services. She eventually was named Executive Director in 1990, a position she held for 20 years until she left to become the CEO of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.
She said that after receiving her graduate degree in social work but before becoming an oncology social worker, she remembered reading a Time cover story about Mrs. Ford in the mid-1970s that she found “very eye-opening in terms of how it discussed cancer.”
Then shortly after arriving at CancerCare Blum was tapped as point person to work with the newly created National Breast Cancer Awareness Week (now Month or NBCAM), founded by tamoxifen manufacturer Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI — now AstraZeneca following various mergers) and crafted by public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.
“I worked with Susan Ford [NBCAM national spokesperson], and met Betty Ford and Nancy Brinker in 1985,” Blum said during a telephone interview, adding that Betty and Susan had made a poignant television public service announcement to call attention to breast cancer screening that helped kick off the campaign.
Diane Blum noted that although the efforts of Reach for Recovery and Rose Kushner and others had brought breast cancer into the public consciousness before Betty Ford allowed photographers into her hospital room in 1974, it was the former First Lady who really opened the floodgates of cancer awareness.
“After Betty Ford, people talked more openly about cancer and sought more information. It was always difficult to have cancer, but not being able to talk about it was a tremendous burden, and Betty's efforts helped ease that.”