In 1974, when First Lady Betty Ford announced that she had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer, it was a turning point in people’s willingness to talk about the disease. Prior to that, discussing cancer of any type, even with one’s family or friends, was often taboo. The First Lady’s openness about her cancer helped create a space in which women felt more comfortable talking about their experience – and about being screened for the disease.
It’s particularly inspiring when a prominent woman who has come forward about her breast cancer is able to resume her career after treatment. That was the case with actress Maura Tierney and singer Kylie Minogue. By going public with their disease and coming back as strong as ever, they’ve made it easier for other patients to talk about their cancer, and have become models of what survivors can accomplish.
The same kind of consciousness-raising occurred in 2007 when Robin Roberts – the co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” program – announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and, more recently, when she told viewers she has myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-cancerous blood disorder, and would be receiving a bone marrow transplant to treat it. I’ve heard patients talk about how reassuring it was to see her working and discussing her disease. I know many patients who feel a particular bond with her.
It’s important to remember that breast cancers vary widely – in their aggressiveness, treatment options, the stage at which they’re diagnosed – and that a well-known woman’s cancer diagnosis may be quite different from one’s own. The decisions a celebrity makes regarding her treatment and recuperation do not necessarily apply to other women diagnosed with breast cancer. Also, in many countries, talking about breast cancer openly is still unacceptable.
We should applaud the candor and courage of prominent women who have been public about their breast cancer experience. They’ve not only helped increase awareness of the disease, but many have become models of strength and optimism for millions of other patients.
Erica Mayer, MD, MPH, is a breast cancer clinician and researcher in the Breast Oncology Center at Dana-Farber, the director of clinical research at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, and an assistant professor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She conducts research into new treatments for breast cancer and is active in breast cancer education.