Betty Ford’s Battle with Breast Cancer

A history in photographs

On September 27, 1974, First Lady Betty Ford checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Just days prior, she made a chance decision to undergo a breast exam while accompanying her friend to an exam of her own, and now she was preparing to undergo a radical mastectomy. What follows are pictures from the First Lady’s recovery – photos that helped shatter the public silence around breast cancer and change the lives of millions of women across the United States.

Betty and Gerald Read Proclamation10/02/1974 – President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford pictured reading a petition from the U.S. Senate following Betty’s radical mastectomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

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At the time of Ford’s surgery, discussing breast cancer publicly was largely considered taboo. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, women who died from breast cancer were often listed as dying from ‘a prolonged disease’ or ‘a woman’s disease.’ When Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, she saw the urgent need to speak out.

In a speech at the American Cancer Society, Ford explained why she publicly fought her battle with cancer.

One day, I appeared to be fine and the next day I was in the hospital for a mastectomy. It made me realize how many women in the country could be in the same situation. That realization made me decide to discuss my breast cancer operation openly, because I thought of all the lives in jeopardy… Too many women are so afraid of breast cancer that they endanger their lives. These fears of being “less” of a woman are very real, and it is very important to talk about the emotional side effects honestly. They must come out into the open.

Betty Throws a Football10/04/1974 – President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford tossing a football in the hallway near the President’s Suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, following the First Lady’s breast cancer surgery. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

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Ford’s willingness to publicly chronicle her surgery and recovery – in photographs and public statements – finally brought the issue of breast cancer into the forefront of public discussion. “Betty Ford’s openness about her breast cancer experience was revolutionary,” said Tasha Dubriwny, an assistant professor of communication and women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M University, in a recent interview with Cancer Today. “It provided the media with the opportunity to do all different types of reporting about breast cancer.”

In the days immediately after her surgery, 10,000 letters, phone calls, telegrams and flowers flooded into the White House and Bethesda Naval Hospital, and in the months that followed tens of thousands of American women, underwent breast-cancer exams – many for the first time. While doctors announced that Ford had made a full recovery in 1976, her advocacy on behalf of cancer awareness, treatment and a cure continued throughout the remainder of her life – and continues to this day.

Betty Bob and Gerald10/05/1974 – Photograph of President Gerald Ford and comedian Bob Hope visiting First Lady Betty Ford in the President’s Suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, following the First Lady’s breast cancer surgery. Photo courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library.

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As a young woman, Ford had spent time working with children at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in her hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. Today, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital is home to The Betty Bloomer Ford Cancer Rehabilitation Program. Here, cancer survivors receive assistance in regaining cognitive, emotional and physical functioning in order to move beyond their battle against cancer and live independent and fulfilling lives as proud cancer survivors.

In speaking to the American Cancer Society in 1975, Ford concluded her remarks by reminding the audience that it is the support of friends, family, and a nation that are often needed the most. In part, she said:

Cancer also produces fear — and much of that fear comes from ignorance about the progress already made and ignorance of the need for preventive medicine for men and women alike. Cancer wherever it strikes the body, also strikes the spirit, and the best doctors in the world cannot cure the spirit. Only love and understanding can accomplish this important role.

All of us can give love and support to our friends who have cancer. We can open our hearts and our minds to dealing with the fears that the victims have, and also the fears many of us have of the disease itself.

I believe we are all here to help each other and that our individual lives have patterns and purposes. My illness turned out to have a very special purpose — helping save other lives, and I am grateful for what I was able to do.

By sharing her battle with the world, First Lady Ford helped shatter the silence about a deadly disease, bring understanding and compassion to the fore, and encourage a nation to take action in the fight against breast cancer.

Betty and Gerald Walking10/04/1974 – Photograph of President Gerald Ford, carrying a football, and First Lady Betty Ford returning to the President’s Suite at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, following the First Lady’s breast cancer surgery. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

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