A Mother and her Two Daughters

21 January 2011

“BREAST” is not a Dirty Word

Several weeks ago, my friend Pat and I talked by phone.  Pat is my friend, PR mentor, and my occasional spiritual advisor  I reached out to her when I was asked to make my very first speech about cancer.  Pat shared with me an NPR story from November, trying to help me put into perspective how far we’ve come in terms of talking about cancer, especially breast cancer.  The story goes like this

In the early 1950s, a socially prominent New Yorker, Fanny Rosenow, and her friend Teresa Lasser, both had radical mastectomies for breast cancer around the same time.  They were close friends, and talked often, sharing their fears and feelings, and recognizing that most women had no one with whom to talk about this physically devastating surgery, no place to find support. Sitting at Fanny's kitchen table, the women decided they would try to reach out to other women to create a support group where women could feel free to talk about having breast cancer. – to give women a safe haven for discussion.

Ms. Rosenow decided that a notice in the New York Times was the best way to announce such a support group.  Her request to place an ad to announce the first breast cancer support group meeting was followed by a long pause. "I'm sorry, Ms. Rosenow, but the Times cannot publish the word ‘breast’ or the word ‘cancer.’  Perhaps you could say there will be a meeting about women with chest diseases."

Ms. Rosenow hung up in disgust. However, both women persisted, and their commitment to the cause resulted in what is widely known as Reach to Recovery, a worldwide support program for women with breast cancer, administered today through the American Cancer Society. 


Shift to Mary Lasker – philanthropist, socialite and public health entrepreneur.  Lasker recalls how after World War II, “cancer was a word you simply could not say out load.”  Although 200,000 Americans were dying from cancer each year, the media didn’t discuss it, federal spending on cancer research was minimal, and scientists knew very little about the disease. 

Years later, Lasker's long-time housekeeper fell ill with cancer.  Lasker would recall that the attending physician sent her to a hospital "called something like the home for the incurable," Outraged by her housekeeper's silent fate, Lasker set out to raise cancer awareness and create an institutional base for cancer research. In her words, “If these diseases don't have political support we'll never conquer them.”  And she made cancer her special cause.

In 1969, Lasker went on to found The Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer, helped rebuild and steer funds to the National Cancer Institute, persuaded President Richard Nixon to launch the so-called war on cancer, and built a powerful lobby to pass the National Cancer Act of 1971.  Lasker helped to demystify cancer and made it okay to use the word “cancer” in everyday discussion. 


Robert Siegel talks with Dr. Richard Wender, president of The American Cancer Society, about former First Lady Betty Ford's very public battle with breast cancer.  Ford's disclosure of her disease in 1974 led to a coming out of sorts for women— no longer was breast cancer a taboo subject.

According to news accounts at the time about Mrs. Ford talking publicly about her mastectomy, tens of thousands of women around the country went to their doctors for breast screenings.  Dr. Wender says that it was at this moment when not just breast cancer, but all cancers became less of a taboo to talk about.


Say it, ladies and gentleman . . . BREAST!


It’s not a dirty word.

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