Do you know about Rose Kushner? If not, you should. Ms Kushner was the founding mother of breast cancer advocacy, and her name should be engraved anywhere that patients' rights are respected and advocates are welcomed. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974 and actually moved from Maryland to Buffalo, New York in order to have surgery with a doctor who was willing to do less than the then-standard radical Halsted mastectomy. As you may know, Betty Ford was also diagnosed that year, and Ms Kushner, through various contacts, spoke with her and tried hard to convince her to refuse the one step surgery of the day (you know, going into the OR not knowing whether it was cancer, and coming out, if it was, without a breast). Ms Ford's response should also go down in history as an astounding example of paternalism, sexism and how far we have come. In refusing to buck the establishment, she said: "The President has made his decision."
This is a wonderful essay about Rose Kushner titled Forget Pink, Remember Rose by Peggy Orenstein from her blog. I give you an excerpt and a link. Do read the whole thing and remember Rose.
It is hard to remember now, but until the early 1970s breast cancer was the Voldemort of diseases, its name never spoken aloud, omitted from a woman’s obituary. If you found a lump, you obediently submitted to the surgeon’s table: maybe you would wake up with a small incision from a biopsy that turned out to be benign. Or you would find yourself mutilated without your knowledge by a Halsted radical mastectomy, the standard treatment of the day, in which the entire breast, chest muscles and lymphatic tissue were removed. Either way, you were expected to keep your experience, and feelings about it, to yourself: to pull up your socks—or shove them in your bra—consider yourself lucky to be alive and get on with it.
That began changing in 1973, when Shirley Temple Black, the former child star, went public with her breast cancer in McCall’s magazine. The following fall, First Lady Betty Ford talked publicly about her diagnosis (as did Second Lady Happy Rockefeller, who was diagnosed two weeks later). By 1976, Betty Rollin’s memoir of her struggle with the disease, First, You Cry, became an international bestseller (and later a TV movie starring Mary Tyler Moore). And with that, a stigma was shattered.
Temple, Ford and the rest made telling one’s personal cancer story socially acceptable, even, in their defiance of shame, vaguely political. However, they didn’t question medical or scientific authority. That role fell to the nascent feminist health movement, and, specifically, a journalist named Rose Kushner.