Betty Ford and Daughter Susan Ford Bales Helped Launch Breast Cancer Awareness

Health Writer
Susan Ford Bales

During her high school years, Susan Ford Bales lived a very different life than most teens her age.

The daughter of U.S. President Gerald Ford, she lived in the White House. And after her famous mom, Betty Ford’s, 1974 surgery for breast cancer, she even served as official White House hostess.

Ten years later, the mother-daughter duo helped launch National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more than three decades the two underscored the importance of early detection in speeches around the world, bringing extensive media attention to raise breast cancer awareness. They spoke to cancer and medical organizations, women’s groups, and at medical and health care forums.

Ford Bales, now 60, still emphasizes the importance of early detection. As National Breast Cancer Awareness Month got underway in October, Ford Bales agreed to an interview with HealthCentral.

Health Central (HC): You and your mother helped launch National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1984 with an ad. Is that right?

Ford Bales: Yes, we did. When you refer to an ad, it was more of a public service announcement. We were working with a pharmaceutical group at the time that was launching it along with the Komen Foundation and different physician organizations, OBGYNs, trying to get the word out. If you look at the publicity scale of when my mother announced her breast cancer back in 1974, I think it was in September, the awareness of breast cancer shot up like you cannot even believe.

Everybody was talking about breast cancer and thousands of women went to get their first mammograms. They learned about breast self-exam. There were many, many women who wouldn't even get undressed in front of their husbands if they had had a mastectomy. It just brought it out of the closet. Well, if you look at that pendulum, awareness slowly began to decrease over the years. That was 1974; this is now 1984 [when we started the awareness month], so 10 years had passed. The awareness had been down and so Seneca, which was the pharmaceutical company, decided to put together a public relations forum, which started out as National Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

Then it turned to a week and then it turned to month because the awareness grew and so many people wanted to be involved in it. We were just the people who were doing the public service announcement. They were doing all the background work, but it was basically saying this does work if you do breast self-examination and if you get your mammograms when appropriate and follow the guidelines of the American Cancer Society. The message was, we can diagnosis breast cancer at an earlier stage.

HC: What it was like for you and your mother to be part of that inaugural public service announcement and campaign?

Ford Bales: It was very important to us. One, I was finally at an age in 1984 where I had two young children. I had a 1-year-old and a 3 1/2-year-old and was finally paying attention to oh, my gosh; I may get this disease someday. That became somewhat scary to me because there's something about being invincible at a young age and thinking “Oh, I'll never get this.” But now that I was a mother and a mother of two daughters, it was like oh, my gosh, what if I do carry the gene, which I don't. I've had my genetic testing done. To be able to do something like that with my mother and for her to help me get involved in an issue that was so important was really an amazing thing to do.

HC: Are you still involved in the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and if so, how?

Ford Bales: No.

HC: Why not?

Ford Bales: It kind of stands on its own. I still do stuff with the Komen Foundation. I am still an ambassador for the Komen Foundation. I'm not sure there really is a “national breast cancerawareness.” I think everybody just took on National Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a cause and does his or her own thing now. We just kind of got it started and got it launched. I did it for 10 or 12 years, and I was their national spokesperson, and it just kind of took on its own life and it is what it is. You don't need a spokesperson anymore because breast cancer has become such common language today.

HC: Do you think you and your mother played a major role in that?

Ford Bales: Yes, I do. I do. I think we helped get it where it is a national conversation.

HC: Do you think that there still is a fear among women and men about getting a mammogram?

Ford Bales: Absolutely. Women are aware that there's a lump and they just keep putting it off and they keep putting it off. I think that is something we will continue to fight no matter what. I think the incidence is less but there's always going to be, especially in rural communities, the lack of information, the lack of medical treatment, and things like that. Money is the other issue, which is why Komen and so many other organizations are so important because they financially help women to get mammograms.

HC: Is there anything that you would like to add or a message you would like to send about this issue?

Ford Bales: I think the important thing is that we are still progressing. We don't have that magic silver bullet vaccine which we all would love to have, to say, OK, if you get breast cancer, this is what you do. We've come a long way in research. The diagnostics of what they use on determining what your treatment is have come a long, long way. We have made incredible headway.

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