Brand building through storytelling

How Betty Ford changed the world

When I was growing up in the days of crinolines and penny loafers, every girl learned three things about breasts. They were not a fitting subject for polite conversation. They drove men wild with desire (hence their prominent display in the kind of magazine not found on anyone’s coffee table). They made you a woman, which meant that if you lost a breast to a certain unmentionable disease, you were not a woman anymore. We all heard stories about women who would not show a breast lump to their doctor until cancer had them in a death grip.

One woman changed that–former First Lady Betty Ford, who died yesterday at 93. in 1974 had barely moved into the White House when she went public about her radical mastectomy for a newly discovered breast lump. I was about to turn 25, with stretch marks on my breasts from nursing and not-infrequent bouts of silent panic over some bump or pucker I’d found there. I couldn’t have told you which I feared more, dying of cancer or losing an unlovely breast. Betty knocked some sense into me, and I loved her for it. “I’ve heard women say they’d rather lose their right arm [than their breast],” she said. “I can’t imagine it. It’s so stupid. I can even wear my evening clothes.” Meanwhile women all over the continent were flocking for breast exams as never before. Why fret about that lump instead of getting on with your life?

Not since Jacqueline Kennedy had any First Lady captured my attention. Jackie won my heart by being more exquisite and elegant than any woman I would ever meet, much less become. With Betty it was just the opposite. I could picture her at a PTA meeting or a neighbourhood barbecue. Unlike Jackie, with her blue-chip education, Betty didn’t have a college degree (although, intriguingly, she’d studied modern dance with Martha Graham). What she did have, in spades, was the courage to share her story so that others could apply her discoveries to their own struggles. “If she can do it, I can do it too,” they would tell themselves. And she didn’t stop with breast cancer. She would later tell the truth about her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. Now anyone who follows celebrity gossip has heard of the Betty Ford Clinic.

You wouldn’t have caught JFK addressing Jackie as Mother, but that’s what President Gerald Ford called Betty, according to her obituary in The New York Times. I’d forgotten what a common endearment that was among traditional guys of his generation. And there really was something maternal about Betty. When I wasn’t sure what to do next and feared the consequences of the wrong decision, the person whose advice I most yearned for was my mother. I needed to hear her say, “This won’t crush you. Here’s how I got through it.” That’s what Betty Ford said to people all over the world. I’ll miss her.

Click here to read my tribute to another extraordinary woman, Dr. Jerri Nielsen.

Posted by Rona

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