Every important movement has a pivotal moment when it gains the necessary momentum to achieve its goals, whether for national recognition, raising funds or saving lives. For the breast cancer movement, that pivotal moment came courtesy of Betty Ford.
The year was 1974 and a diagnosis of breast cancer, while of course not necessarily a death sentence, was still about the worst news a woman could receive. Less than 20 percent of women performed regular breast exams, and the standard treatment for a woman going in to have a tumor biopsied was, if it was found to be malignant, to keep her under anesthesia and perform a radical mastectomy. She'd wake up with either a Band-Aid or no breast. In 1974, 90,000 Americans were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 33,000 died from it.
Betty Ford, whose husband, Gerald, had just become President of the United States, was an outspoken woman with a mind -- and opinions -- of her own. In the couple's first press conference during the summer of 1974 (which was called to restore faith in the nation's leadership), the First Lady caused a stir by acknowledging that she was an advocate of women's reproductive rights (whereas her husband had been a staunch opponent of Roe v. Wade). Two months later she accompanied a friend for a breast exam at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and the friend prevailed on her to have one, too. The doctor found a lump the size of a marble, scheduled exploratory surgery, and when Mrs. Ford woke up, both of her breasts were gone.
Rather than hide the news, she convened the press and announced to the nation that its First Lady had breast cancer. It's hard to believe that just 40 years ago, the words "breast cancer" were not spoken in polite company; euphemisms like "woman's cancer" prevailed. Mrs. Ford turned that on its head and brought the words, the disease and all the issues surrounding it, out of the closet and into American living rooms.
Three years later, in 1977, my sister, Susan G. Komen, was diagnosed with breast cancer and she died in 1980 at the age of 36. Two years after that I founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation (now Susan G. Komen for the Cure), and one of the first people I reached out to was Mrs. Ford. I'll never forget that sweltering day in September 1982 when my seven-year-old son, Eric, accompanied me to greet her as she stepped off a plane in Dallas to help launch the foundation. My eyes welled up as the reality of what was happening hit me: One of the most courageous First Ladies in history was here to help fulfill my promise to my sister to bring about an end to breast cancer.
We'd asked Mrs. Ford to join us for a fundraising women's polo tournament for our fledgling organization, and she agreed -- as long as she didn't have to get on a horse, she said. But true to form, she did a lot more than just show up. Working elbow to elbow with our earliest volunteers, including Kay Bailey Hutchison and then Mayor of Dallas Annette Strauss, Mrs. Ford was pivotal in helping us launch a crusade that has changed the world for millions of breast cancer survivors and their families.
In 1985, breast cancer hit even closer to home when I was diagnosed with the disease. I'll never forget the very first phone call that I received after learning the news. It was Mrs. Ford, calling me personally after hearing of my diagnosis. Better than anyone, she understood what I was feeling and took the time to give me a personal pep talk. "You don't stop," she said. "You get through it, one day at a time, and if a day is overwhelming, one hour at a time." I truly believe that listening to her calm and steady voice on that horrible day was as important as anything else in my recovery.
Last Friday, that voice was silenced and the world lost one of its great citizens. Betty Ford never ducked her struggles or hid from them. She brought them into the open, and with unflagging courage and grace, made herself a beacon to light a path that countless millions could follow. Her bravery inspired a nation as she helped disarm the fear and stigma that surrounded first breast cancer and later addiction. Mrs. Ford proved a champion over breast cancer; she conquered her addictions and lived life on her terms until the ripe age of 93. Her legacy lives on in every person who stands up to their challenges and becomes a survivor.
I'm as committed to this path and to being on the frontlines in the fight against breast cancer as I was when I first founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And I know what Betty Ford knew -- that we're all in this together. With this blog, I invite you to share your questions, your concerns and your fears -- to let your voice be heard. We've come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to do and we can't hand it off to anyone else.
Like Betty Ford said, "You don't stop." The fight against breast cancer belongs to us all. By banding together and becoming one united force against the disease, I am certain we will win this battle.
Follow Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nancygbrinker