Chronicles of Cancer

Chronicles of Cancer: A history of mammography, part 2


Celebrity status matters

All of the elements of a social revolution in the use of mammography were in place in the late 1960s, but the final triggers to raise social consciousness were the cases of several high-profile female celebrities. In 1973, beloved former child star Shirley Temple Black revealed her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy in an era when public discussion of cancer – especially breast cancer – was rare.4

David S. Nolan, U.S. Air Force

Shirley Temple Black

But it wasn’t until 1974 that public awareness and media coverage exploded, sparked by the impact of First Lady Betty Ford’s outspokenness on her own experience of breast cancer. “In obituaries prior to the 1950s and 1960s, women who died from breast cancer were often listed as dying from ‘a prolonged disease’ or ‘a woman’s disease,’ ” according to Tasha Dubriwny, PhD, now an associate professor of communication and women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M University, College Station, when interviewed by the American Association for Cancer Research.5Betty Ford openly addressed her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment and became a prominent advocate for early screening, transforming the landscape of breast cancer awareness. And although Betty Ford’s diagnosis was based on clinical examination rather than mammography, its boost to overall screening was indisputable.

“Within weeks [after Betty Ford’s announcement] thousands of women who had been reluctant to examine their breasts inundated cancer screening centers,” according to a 1987 article in the New York Times.6 Among these women was Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller. Happy Rockefeller also found that she had breast cancer upon screening, and with Betty Ford would become another icon thereafter for breast cancer screening.

“Ford’s lesson for other women was straightforward: Get a mammogram, which she had not done. The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute had recently mounted a demonstration project to promote the detection of breast cancer as early as possible, when it was presumed to be more curable. The degree to which women embraced Ford’s message became clear through the famous ‘Betty Ford blip.’ So many women got breast examinations and mammograms for the first time after Ford’s announcement that the actual incidence of breast cancer in the United States went up by 15 percent.”4

In a 1975 address to the American Cancer Society, Betty Ford said: “One day I appeared to be fine and the next day I was in the hospital for a mastectomy. It made me realize how many women in the country could be in the same situation. That realization made me decide to discuss my breast cancer operation openly, because I thought of all the lives in jeopardy. My experience and frank discussion of breast cancer did prompt many women to learn about self-examination, regular checkups, and such detection techniques as mammography. These are so important. I just cannot stress enough how necessary it is for women to take an active interest in their own health and body.”7

ACS guidelines evolve

It wasn’t until 1976 that the ACS issued its first major guidelines for mammography screening. The ACS suggested mammograms may be called for in women aged 35-39 if there was a personal history of breast cancer, and between ages 40 and 49 if their mother or sisters had a history of breast cancer. Women aged 50 years and older could have yearly screening. Thereafter, the use of mammography was encouraged more and more with each new set of recommendations.8


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