A New Form of Struggle: Betty Ford and Breast Cancer in the 1970s

Student Author(s)

Kevin Wonch

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Jonathan Hagood

Document Type


Event Date



In the 1970s, the nature of how Americans perceived breast cancer changed. Instead of being a taboo topic, as it was previously, people began to discuss breast cancer and its various impacts openly. This is due in part to the role of First Lady Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald R. Ford, who went public about her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1974. While most research on Ford consists of her role in establishing the Betty Ford clinic for substance abuse or how her breast cancer discussions impacted the public, little has been written on how her role regarding breast cancer affected the doctor-patient relationship. This project analyzes First Lady Betty Ford’s 1974 public declaration of her breast cancer diagnosis and primary sources based on its response from both the scientific and public community provides insight into how Ford changed the relationship between the medical community and the public, and breast cancer awareness as a whole. Sources show that while Ford cannot be credited with the entire change in the doctor patient relationship, which was primarily based on the period as a whole, she helped the public realize that the way they needed to interact with doctors needed to change. She accomplished this through making the war on cancer an external struggle on a personal level, rather than on a national level. Furthermore, evidence shows that doctors, who were not connected intimately with the public, were not the ones to initiate that change. This project adds nuance to important themes in the history of science, such as the disconnect between patients and doctors, and doctor’s reluctance to include patient responses and attitudes in their practices.

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