Steve Ford: Mother Attacked Breast Cancer Stigma Head On
TROY - When First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974, she broke new ground in taking her battle public.
Her courageous spirit in dealing with the cancer brought widespread public awareness of a health challenge that was a “closet disease,” her son, Steve Ford, said during the annual McGraw Cancer Awareness Symposium Oct. 24 at the Crystal Room in Troy.
Betty Ford learned of her possible breast cancer within 30 days of Gerald Ford taking office following the resignation of Richard Nixon.
“There was very little awareness of it then,” Ford said. “They (the president and first lady) purposely discussed were they going make it public or keep it private, as so many women did … I remember those images of them standing there holding hands, saying, ‘We are going to take the public shame off of this disease.’”
At the time, the stigma and fear were “so great, women actually committed suicide than face breast cancer,” he said. “It was a closet disease and here was a first lady going to go in for surgery.”
Ford said his mother said she never felt the psychic wound, that feeling of “being mutilated” by surgery. Instead, he said, she felt much supported by her family and her husband.
There also was a huge public outpouring, Ford recalled. Betty Ford received 50,000 letters and cards from women around the world saying, “Thank you Mrs. Ford for helping take the shame off this disease,” he said.
Gerald Ford received cards from men, thanking him for standing by his wife, and showing them how to be supportive of their wives. Men wrote telling Betty Ford about their wives’ battles.
Ford shared with the audience photos of the Ford family and stories of the chaotic times that led to his father’s unexpected presidency. He also discussed challenges the family faced with his mother’s breast cancer and, later, her public discussion of her personal battle with alcoholism.
His mother, Ford said, “was certainly ahead of her time.”
He described her as open minded and someone who would speak her mind. “What she did, the awareness for cancer, just happened … to fall in her lap. She didn’t think she did anything special,” he said.
Steve Ford was a teen when his father became president. He left Washington at age 18, first to pursue a life as a cowboy. Not long later, he embarked on an acting career that has spanned movies and TV shows including the daytime drama “The Young and the Restless.” Ford also tours as a motivational speaker, including visiting schools to talk with students about his own battle with alcoholism.
If his mother were alive today, Betty Ford would be “thrilled” at the acceptance and awareness of breast cancer.
“On the other side of it, there is almost a fear that there is a feeling like ‘It must be all taken care of,’ which it isn’t,” Ford said. “There is all of this awareness, but behind that awareness you have to remind people there is still work to be done.”
The Cancer Awareness Symposium, in its 13th year, was sponsored by The UVMC Foundation and the UVMC Cancer Care Center and made possible by a grant from the McGraw Family Fund of The Troy Foundation and a UVMC Foundation grant. The symposium is named in honor of Troy residents Bill and Ruth McGraw. Between them, Bill and Ruth McGraw had cancer five times, but neither died from the disease.