Betty Ford and the press conference that changed oncology

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Sept. 30, 1974: NCI hits the tabloids

Spotlight article: Breast Cancer Report To The Profession Suddenly Is a Report To The Nation; Treatment Progress Noted
The Cancer Letter | Oct. 7, 1974

An NCI press conference is rarely a tabloid affair—except on Sept. 30, 1974. What was anticipated to be a dry occasion shifted when Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, underwent a radical mastectomy Sept. 28. 

The Cancer Letter was there: “Breast Cancer Report To The Profession Suddenly Is a Report To The Nation; Treatment Progress Noted,” was the Oct. 7, 1974 issue’s lead story

Nathaniel Berlin, then director of NCI’s Division of Biology & Diagnosis and chairman of the Breast Cancer Task Force, had been concerned the breast cancer report would receive limited public attention. Instead, he got a media circus—leading to fears of publishing the findings prematurely. 

No one talked about their cancer diagnosis in the 1970s. Surprisingly, Betty Ford credits Richard Nixon—in part—for her pioneering openness about her breast cancer diagnosis: 

“There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration,” Betty Ford told Gloria Steinem in a 1984 interview. “So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public.”

“Too many women are so afraid of breast cancer that they endanger their lives,” Ford said in remarks to the American Cancer Society Nov. 7, 1975. “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 Ford’s openness had results: “At the time of my mastectomy, I was pleased to see the response to it,” she said in 1976 at a dedication of MD Anderson facilities. “It prompted many women to get a check up.” 

This phenomenon became known as the “Betty Ford blip.”

What was her prognosis? The Cancer Letter’s 1974 article notes that “historically more than 50% of breast cancer patients die with metastatic disease…. More than 75% of patients with 1 or more positive nodes will have recurrent disease at 10yrs and most of the patients will die of their disease.” 

Betty Ford, who was found in 1974 to have four positive nodes, was prescribed an L-PAM regimen, and beat the odds. As a cancer survivor, she continued her advocacy and breast cancer awareness campaigns. 

Concluding her 1975 ACS address, Ford said, “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.”

Ford died in 2011 at the age of 93. A comprehensive obituary ran in Time


Recent contributions

Connie Henke Yarbro: 1984 Cancer Nursing Perspective
By Oncology Nursing Society | June 24, 2021

Women in Science: Candace Johnson, PhD
By Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center | June 21, 2021


This column features the latest posts to the Cancer History Project by our growing list of contributors

The Cancer History Project is a free, web-based, collaborative resource intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act and designed to continue in perpetuity. The objective is to assemble a robust collection of historical documents and make them freely available. 

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