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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Through the various obituaries of Gerald Ford that we're seeing this week and the many recollections of his brief time in the White House, here is one footnote that's worth adding, it's the story of how famous people and illness can cross paths and change the way we talk about that illness.

In 1974, the president's wife, Betty Ford, learned that she had breast cancer and she had a mastectomy. Within weeks, the vice president's wife, Happy Rockefeller, also learned that she had breast cancer and she had the same treatment. A couple of years earlier, Shirley Temple-Black and Marvella Bayh, the wife of Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, had similarly gone public about their cancer and their operations.

But it was Mrs. Ford, above all, and Mrs. Rockefeller who made big news, who got the mass media and the public at large to talk about breast cancer.

Dr. Richard Wender is the president of the American Cancer Society. He joins us from Pittsburgh. And Dr. Wender, how important do you think it was that the first lady dealt with cancer in a very public way?

Dr. RICHARD WENDER (American Cancer Society): I think Betty Ford's decision to deal with cancer with the public was an extraordinary decision that's had a profound impact on the face of not just breast cancer, in my view, but probably of all cancer. She is the person that we credit almost single handedly for truly increasing awareness of what women could do to take control and to really fight back against breast cancer.

SIEGEL: In 1974, one still might very likely hear a conversation about cancer conducted in whispers.

Dr. WENDER: There's no doubt about it. Unfortunately, I wish I could say that the stigma associated with cancer was completely gone even today. Unfortunately, it's still lingering in some cultures and in some communities and in some families. But Betty Ford went a long way to just wiping that stigma away and truly sharing her experience, the emotions, with all of us. So we have records in the American Cancer Society, with an address that she gave to us in 1975, not long after her diagnosis where she was very open about what it felt like to hear those words, but also what it felt like to take control and get the treatment that she needs to become the long term survivor that she in fact became.

SIEGEL: I found online an article from Time magazine back in 1974, which included this. It said that Manhattan's Guttmann Clinic, and I'm reading now, "which screens women for breast cancer, until recently received 30 to 40 telephone calls a day. It is now receiving as many as 400 calls a day and has placed women seeking examinations on a waiting list that extends for some months. The American Cancer Society's division in Atlanta," it said, "has been overwhelmed by phone calls from women inquiring about a breast cancer."

And the story was even the same in London and in other cities around the world. This is, would have a tremendous impact on people when this happened.

Dr. WENDER: You know what? I was trying to ask myself why is it that public people, sharing a cancer experience has such an impact. And I think in many respects, it's because we really feel like we know them, like they're a part of our lives and that someone we know and care about has been impacted.

And then, when they deal with it very openly in a brave way, but just in a very honest way, it truly motivates women and frankly, all of us to ask ourselves what do I need to do to make sure that I do not die from this disease.

SIEGEL: There are other famous people who have been associated with frank discussion of an ailment. The death of Rock Hudson did much for the discussion of HIV/AIDS. And of course, President Roosevelt was very much involved in trying to get people to prevent polio.

Dr. WENDER: Exactly. And more recently, Robert Dole was very public about his prostate cancer. Katie Couric, of course, not her own diagnosis, but her husband's tragic death has been an amazing influence on the face of colon cancer awareness. Michael J. Fox with Parkinson's disease. There is no doubt that folks who are in the public eye have the opportunity - not that we wish any sort of serious illness on any of them - but if they make that decision, or perhaps I should say when they make that decision, or whenever that course is in their own illness, to share it with other people. Because as Betty Ford showed perhaps better than anyone in recent memory. When you make that decision, it can truly impact how people behave.

SIEGEL: Dr. Wender, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. WENDER: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Richard Wender, who is the president of the American Cancer Society.

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