Betty Ford: Courageous Pioneer
By Idelle Davidson

When Betty Ford spoke out about her breast cancer, she paved the way for an advocacy movement that would help save women's lives.

Former First Lady Betty Ford will never forget the political and personal events of 1974. Richard Nixon, facing impeachment hearings for his role in the Watergate scandal, resigned the presidency. Her husband, Vice President Gerald Ford, was thrust into the void as our 38th president. Within the month, President Ford risked his political future by granting a pardon to Nixon. (Indeed, many people believe that Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter because of that pardon.) Then 3 weeks later, doctors diagnosed Betty Ford with breast cancer.

The story was big news. The Fords didn’t hide it. And it changed the world.

Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and a close friend of Mrs. Ford’s, says, “At the time Betty was diagnosed with this disease, it literally was not something you talked about in polite company. Betty was courageous to go out and tell the world, ‘I have breast cancer.’ It is not an exaggeration to say that without Betty Ford’s forth-rightness in 1974, the entire breast cancer movement would not have gotten off the ground. She opened the floodgates for advocacy.”

Now, 27 years later, Mrs. Ford reflects on her decision to talk candidly with the media. InTouch met with her for an exclusive interview.

“When it was announced that I was in the hospital to have a biopsy and possibly surgery—a mastectomy it came as a big shock to the press and to the country,” says Mrs. Ford. “But our decision was that it was very important that the administration be open and honest and not try to cover up anything from the public. And the family felt good about it.”

Those stressful Washington, DC days seem far removed from her life today, says Mrs. Ford as she sits on a flower-patterned sofa in the living room of her Rancho Mirage home, just north of Palm Springs, California. She absentmindedly pets “Happy,” their 13-year-old cocker spaniel who snoozes by her feet. An afternoon sun casts long shadows on the crystal elephants and fresh orchids on the coffee table. A dramatic oil painting of the former First Lady hangs on one wall.

The room is bright and cheerful, decorated in cool yellows and greens “because it’s so hot in the desert,” she says. At 83, Mrs. Ford is as lovely and active as ever. She has soft blue eyes, short hair that she wears brushed back from her face, and a warm and engaging manner.

The Fords’ home is just one structure within the security-gated compound that looks out onto the golf course of the Thunderbird Country Club. Several yards away down a path is President Ford’s office. Inside he is preparing an acceptance speech for an award that is a vindication of sorts. Coming full circle, Caroline Kennedy will soon present Mr. Ford with the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his pardon of Nixon.

Thinking back on her outspokenness in 1974, Mrs. Ford says she was surprised by the country’s reaction then. Women all over the country lined up at clinics for breast exams. (Researchers later dubbed the resulting surge in breast cancer diagnoses “the Betty Ford Phenomenon.”)

“Somehow the wife of the president of the United States was up there on some kind of a pedestal,” she says. “That’s not necessarily where she should be, but that’s where people put a First Lady. The result was that many women began to realize that if I could have breast cancer, anybody could have breast cancer.”

In Mrs. Ford’s case, her doctor detected a lump during a routine medical exam. It turned out to be malignant. She lost her right breast, some muscle and several lymph nodes.

She says that it was her concern for her family and their support for her that got her through the ordeal. At first, her husband was a bit squeamish about the surgery. “He doesn’t like hospitals, he doesn’t like surgery of any kind,” says Mrs. Ford.

So before she left the hospital, Mrs. Ford made sure that her husband was comfortable with the change to her body. She asked him to visit while the nurse gave her a bath. “I wasn’t trying to torture him but I wanted him to know what had happened,” she says.

Their three sons rallied, but daughter Susan Ford Bales, then 17 years old, took her mother’s surgery particularly hard. “Susan, who was our youngest, became very upset because she was so sure that her mother was going to die,” says Mrs. Ford. “She was in tears and falling apart. This made me think I needed to have more strength and not worry about me but worry more about her and the family.”

That’s not to say that Mrs. Ford didn’t shed tears for herself in private. But focusing on her responsibilities as First Lady kept her busy and preoccupied.

In those days, chemotherapy was a fairly new treatment. Doctors found cancer in three of her lymph nodes and prescribed chemotherapy in pill form. For 2 years she took the drug 5 days in a row every 5 weeks. “Hair came out in my brush and in handfuls but I never lost it all,” she says. She also had precautionary bone scans every 6 months or so.

Doctors never recommended breast reconstruction, recalls Mrs. Ford. Even if they had, she doubts she would have been amenable to it.

She did not want more surgery. They told her to wait 2 years before making a decision, in case the cancer returned.

“At the time my 2 years were up, it was 1976 and I was campaigning for my husband for re-election,” she says. “So I had no time to go through reconstruction. And I was already adjusted to the prosthesis.”

Mrs. Ford says she believes mastectomies can be hard on relationships.

“A woman’s breast is such a feminine part of her. It deals with sensuality,” says Mrs. Ford. “So consequently, in a marriage, you don’t want to lose something that is going to take away some of that feeling.”

She recalls someone asking her: If your husband had to have an eye, arm, leg, or a sexual part removed would you feel differently about him? And she realized that of course, in her case, the answer would be no.

“If your marriage has a good foundation, if you have a solid feeling of what you mean to each other, and if you support each other, then it’s not going to have an effect,” she says.

Betty Ford has continued to speak her mind, not just about cancer, but also about issues of importance to her and to the country. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, right for the mentally and physically disabled, and liberalized abortion laws. Four years after her mastectomy, Mrs. Ford checked herself into the Long Beach Naval Hospital for treatment for alcohol and prescription drug addiction. It was a painful and embarrassing chapter in her life, but she shared her feelings with the public about that as well.

And after she returned home, she was bombarded with “bags and bags of mail.” People wanted to know how they too could overcome addiction.

“I felt that maybe there was a possibility that here, in this wonderful desert, with all these mountains around it, and the serenity that we feel and the peace and ambiance, that it would be a good place for a treatment center,” she says.

The result was the renowned Betty Ford Center that she co-founded in 1982 with philanthropist and fellow recovering alcoholic, the late Leonard Firestone. It is located at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.

Mrs. Ford has slowed down some, but she still speaks to breast cancer awareness organizations and talks to addiction groups at the Betty Ford Center. For her public works she has been honored more than two dozen times.

Most notably, President George Bush, Sr., presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. Both she and her husband were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 for their 30 years of public service.

She has lent her name and energy countless times to promote worthy causes. Nancy Goodman Brinker credits Betty Ford with helping launch the now-international Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 1982, so named after Brinker’s sister, who died from the disease. Mutual friends in politics introduced Brinker to Mrs. Ford, who co-chaired the Foundation its first year. Mrs. Ford now presents the Komen Foundation’s annual “Betty Ford Award” to deserving recipients.

“Betty is one of the most outstanding human beings I’ve ever has the privilege of knowing,” says Brinker, who has been appointed by the current President Bush as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

“Because of her strength, conviction, and passion, Betty is one of the greatest role models of my life,” she says. When I created the Komen Foundation, she was there. Betty helped me so much that I don’t think I can ever express my gratitude.”

Brinker, who is one of the leading advocates for breast cancer awareness, says that she turns to Mrs. Ford during difficult times.

“She has helped me on so many occasions. When I have a problem, I turn to Betty. When I have a concern in life, she’s a spiritual guide. She rates right up there next to my mother and family members as one of the most important people in my life.”

The former First Lady is more than a symbol for breast cancer awareness and rehabilitation from addiction, believes Brinker.

“In my mind she has become an icon of not being afraid, of stepping out, of being proactive. She is a woman who has always been ahead of her time.”