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October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month: 5 American Women Who Changed Society's Attitude to Disease


Source: Wonder

The heroines of this article were among the first public figures who were not afraid to tell the public about their illness and treatment. Wonderzine.

Photo: Shutterstock

October is the month of the fight against breast cancer. Companies are releasing products in pink or marked with ribbons to help fight the disease - financially or at least by getting attention. These actions are slowly but surely explaining that breast cancer is a disease that is well controlled, treatable, and most importantly, requires early diagnosis. But the origins of the movement, of course, were not corporations, but the women themselves, who were not afraid to speak.

It's not just how much they have changed the way we think about breast cancer. Community requests set in motion other external forces as well: the state and sponsors oversee research programs, charities distribute booklets about breast self-examination and the need for regular mammography after a certain age. This has led to the fact that today the five-year survival rate among all cases of breast cancer reaches 90%, while half a century ago, almost every second woman died from this disease.

Shirley Temple Black

American film actress Shirley Temple is rightfully considered the first famous woman to publicly declare that she has breast cancer - right from a hospital bed.

You need to understand that for the seventies this was an act on the verge of recklessness and courage, far beyond the bounds of secular decency. Before Shirley, they did not speak out loud about oncology: the ladies were sick "like women", and if the tumor won, they died after a "long illness." It was indecent to communicate openly about your frightening diagnosis, especially in a society that seriously believed that cancer was contagious and spread from person to person. Moreover, the former actress at the time was working for an organization that, like many others, did not hire cancer patients unless they were five years old after being diagnosed.

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In fact, Shirley has made three revolutions: one in society, and two whole in a narrow circle of medical professionals. In the seventies, the practice was widespread when a woman had her breasts removed without warning. The patient could come to the doctor for a simple biopsy, and wake up after the operation, find that the surgeon removed the entire mammary gland. This was done with the best of intentions: it was believed that this approach would save a woman from unnecessary worries about breast loss. But Shirley Temple said it was unacceptable.

Further, defending the right to control her own body, she refused from a crippling radical mastectomy (removal of the mammary gland and a number of adjacent tissues) and insisted on performing a simple mastectomy - an operation in which only breast tissue is removed. At that time, doctors had been operating on patients radically for a hundred years already, taking it as an axiom that it was necessary, and without wondering why. The surgeons who advocated less aggressive interventions were not heard, but Shirley Temple became their voice.

Already two years after the operation, actress Bernie Fischer published the preliminary results of his research: it turned out that a simple mastectomy is not inferior to a radical one in terms of treatment results. Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy just a day before Fischer's presentation at a hospital on a nearby street.

Betty Ford

In the fall of 1974, the first lady of the United States, Betty Ford, learned that she was sick with breast cancer. The next thing she did was to declare it openly.

Of course, Ford was not the first woman to do this, but she was the first wife of a current US president to do so. If the ex-celebrity Shirley Temple could still be "overlooked", then it was impossible to keep silent about the illness of the country's first woman. The White House was filled with thousands of letters, telephones were bursting with calls, and in the corridors it was impossible to squeeze through bouquets of flowers for the first lady.

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Following this, Betty decided to take another recklessly bold step. The fact is that her disease was not so harmless: the disease managed to spread to the axillary lymph nodes. In 1975, the same Bernie Fischer published the results of a study according to which postoperative chemotherapy (the standard of treatment for locally advanced cancer today) improves treatment outcomes. And the first lady of the United States was among the first women to receive a new therapy - difficult and almost incompatible with traditional social life due to side effects, including possible hair loss.

American women heard Betty's message: almost immediately after her statement, thousands of them came to see an oncologist and had mammograms. Immediately after the revelation of the President's wife, the number of breast cancer diagnoses in the United States increased by 15% - later epidemiologists called this the "Betty Ford effect."

Self-diagnosis of breast cancer. Photo: Shutterstock

Happy Rockefeller

Betty Ford's experience also prompted the country's second lady, Margaret (Happy) Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, to undergo tests. Her breast cancer was discovered just a couple of weeks after Betty's surgery. She was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the world's largest private cancer center, which the Rockefellers founded.

On account of the surgeon Jerome Urban, who dealt with Happy, there was more than one famous patient. Not only was he an adherent of aggressive radical surgery, he practiced the method of preventive "mirror" biopsy, when cancer was sought in a healthy gland. Jerome found changes in Mrs. Rockefeller that could become cancerous over the years. He insisted on a prophylactic mastectomy, and a short time after Happy Rockefeller's first operation, the second breast was removed.

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Subsequently, Happy Rockefeller shared Betty Ford's active publicity. The women performed both together and separately, and gradually convinced the society that breast cancer is a problem that can be corrected and treated, but above all it requires prevention and careful attention to their health.

Betty Rollin

Nevertheless, the television image of the two brilliant women who beat cancer - Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller - did not tell about something else: how women who have lost their breasts live.

The mammary glands are not a complex of tissues for a long time, the main task of which is to secrete milk for feeding offspring. The female breast in popular culture is one of the main attributes of conventional beauty, a symbol of sexuality and motherhood. Until now, the attitude towards the breast is ambiguous - it is worth recalling the numerous disputes about the permissibility of nudity on the beach, TV screen and in public.

About how she survived the loss of her breast, journalist Betty Rollin spoke in her book "First, You Cry". Betty was diagnosed with synchronous cancer of two mammary glands - and she simultaneously lost both of them. Betty spoke honestly and openly about how the double mastectomy affected her appearance, self-confidence and acceptance of sexuality. So, after the operation, Betty initiated a painful separation from her husband, who, although he did not think that she became less attractive, was defeated by her depression.

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To her own surprise, this confession book not only broke all sales records, but was subsequently filmed and reprinted again. Brave Betty Rollin, faced with a terrible disease, was the first to tell society that not only the fact of life itself matters, but also its quality, how full it can be.

Evelyn Lauder

That breast cancer is a disease that requires a different approach, Paul Marks, director of the Rockefeller Cancer Center Memorial Sloan-Kettering, realized. He wondered if it was possible to change the cancer care system for women with breast cancer so that their life after recovery does not turn into a nightmare, as it happened with Betty Rollin. We needed a new cancer center that would deal exclusively with breast cancer problems.

Appealing to female beauty, Paul Marks tried to find sponsors among the largest cosmetics companies, including Revlon, L'Oréal and Estée Lauder. But the magnates were afraid to flirt with the terrible disease. The idea almost died, but Evelyn Lauder changed everything. She almost did not talk about her breast cancer, but began to speak on behalf of all women, without exception. Evelyn took over the construction of a new cancer center, later founded the Breast Cancer Research Support Foundation, and persuaded President Clinton to declare October 19 National Mammography Day. Around the same time, she teamed up with Self editor-in-chief Alexandra Penny to launch a marketing cyclone, inventing the "pink ribbon," a symbol for breast cancer. We already know what happened next: Thousands of organizations around the world are participating in breast cancer awareness events.

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