Betty Ford died yesterday at age 93. I’m so glad it wasn’t the breast cancer that killed her. As a young(ish) cancer-chick myself, it’s depressing as all get-out, not to mention terrifying, to learn of other women’s death from the disease we share. When this damned BC menace claimed Elizabeth Edwards, I was saddened and more than a little sick to my stomach at the stark realization that this disease does kill, young or old, healthy or not. The fact that this dreaded disease claims some 40,000 women a year brings into sharp focus the loss of maternal love that comes with each BC casualty. Knowing how much I miss my own sweet mama, the idea of the motherless Edwards children weighed heavily on my heart for weeks after her death.
I was a kid when Betty Ford was in the White House, so I don’t have much of a reference point for her. I do recall a grade-school chant of “Ford, Ford, he’s our man; Carter belongs in the garbage can” during Ford’s bid for re-election, but like the other kids on the playground, I chanted that with virtually no knowledge of politics. I’m sure I knew that Richard Nixon had been president, but was much too busy riding my bike and playing cul-de-sac games to realize that Gerald Ford became president in August of 1974, taking the place of a disgraced Richard Nixon. Now I know that Ford had been vice president less than a year before being “called up”; he’d been chosen to succeed Spiro Agnew, who also left office in disgrace amidst accusations of tax evasion.
I’m sure I didn’t realize that Betty Ford went from a “regular person” to wife of a Congress member fast. Really fast. She married Gerald Ford a month before he was elected to Congress; in fact, he was late to their wedding because he was campaigning up to the last minute. When JFK was president, the Fords became friends with the Kennedys and attended several parties at the White House. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, Betty Ford lingered at the burial and was the last woman at the gravesite. Two years later, Ford was elected minority leader of the House, and was away from home a lot. That’s when her heavy drinking began, and it continued for more than a decade before her family intervened. After she conquered her addiction to alcohol and pain pills, she founded the Betty Ford Center, which opened in October 1982. Since then, some 27,000 people have been treated there, including celebs like Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, and Mickey Mantle.
I didn’t think much about Betty Ford once I was an adult, either, since her time in the spotlight had more or less passed and she endeavored to live as a private citizen. She apparently shunned the spotlight yet was returned to it in December 2006 when the country entered a 6-day mourning period upon the death of President Ford.
Even then, I didn’t think much about her, until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
See, Betty Ford was a member of the pink ribbon sisterhood, and she blazed a trail that has significantly benefited subsequent generations of women. Women like me.
I was 6 years old when Mrs Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer in her right breast. She learned the bad news on September 26, 1974, according to the First Ladies’ biographies website. Two days later, she underwent a radical mastectomy. She’d been the First Lady for a matter of weeks when she was diagnosed. She faced the situation with the candor for which she’d become known: she announced her diagnosis and surgery publicly and even invited the media into her hospital room and posed for photos. Here she is, reading a get-well card signed by Congress.
I have no idea if she realized how much of a trailblazer she was. It’s probably just how she was, and to her, being outspoken and honest about her “cancer journey” is “just what you do.” I can relate to that. I hope Mrs Ford realized the impact she had on breast cancer awareness, which is safe to say was nonexistent in the early 1970s. I think she must have, based on this quote: “Before I was ever out of the hospital, there were, on television, women checking in to have mammograms,” Ford said at the Gerald Ford Museum in May 2001. “It was kind of like, if the first lady can have breast cancer, anyone can have breast cancer.”
Mrs Ford underwent two years of chemo, and in the fall of 1976 her doctors declared her cancer-free. Someone once asked her if she felt sorry for herself after losing her breasts. I absolutely adore her reply:
“No! Oh no — heavens no. I’ve heard women say they would rather lose their right arm, and I can’t even imagine it. It’s so stupid.”
She believed that women facing breast cancer should “go as quickly as possible and [get the surgery] done. Once it’s done, put it behind you and go on with your life.”
It’s safe to say that Mrs Ford paved the way for countless women–including yours truly– who were diagnosed after her. She removed the stigma from cancer, and breast cancer in particular. Before she piped up, there was no breast cancer awareness, no public discussion, and certainly no pink-ribbon culture. Barbara Brenner, former executive director at Breast Cancer Action said that Ford “showed people that you can live with cancer, that it’s not a death sentence.” The Komen organization has similar respect for Mrs Ford. Their official statement says “Betty Ford opened the door for millions of women when she candidly acknowledged her breast cancer diagnosis at a time when we didn’t talk about this disease and untold numbers of women suffered in silence. She showed the world that breast cancer could be faced with courage, with humor and with great dignity.”
It’s also safe to say that Mrs Ford would likely be quite pleased with the advances that have been made in breast cancer treatment. Ironically, in the same year she was diagnosed, Tamoxifen was showing itself to be a wonder drug in decreasing breast cancer recurrence. Now it’s become a household name in the BC community, and it’s a daily part of my life.
I think I would have really liked Betty Ford. Not just because we’re both members of the dreaded pink ribbon club, either. Because she was smart, sassy, outspoken, and real. She was a survivor, in every sense of the word. She was beloved as First Lady, and used her role as a platform to educate the American public on controversial subjects such as abortion, marijuana use, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She made it clear that she and President Ford would share a bed in the White House (something not previously publicized, apparently), and when someone asked her about sleeping with the president, she said “I do–every chance I get.”
She was perhaps unconventional as First Lady, and I like how she shook things up a bit. I love this story about her, told by White House photographer David Kennerly. On her last day as First Lady, Betty Ford walked by the empty Cabinet Room and told Kennerly, “You know, I’ve always wanted to dance on the cabinet room table.” Kennerly said, “Well, nobody’s around.” Opportunity knocked, and the plucky First Lady took advantage.
Kennerly says she took off her shoes, hopped up there, and struck a pose. “She’s a tiny woman, really, in very good shape. Very graceful, as a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. She got up there.”
Speculating on why Mrs Ford would be compelled to dance on the table, formally set with notepads and ashtrays (yes, ashtrays!), Kennerly realized that very few women have had a seat at that table. “I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment”—she endorsed it—”she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences.”
“It was a wonderful and whimsical ending,” Betty Ford wrote, “to that magical time I spent as first lady.”
R.I.P, Betty Ford.