October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to briefly reflect on what cancer "awareness" means to the oncology community and to the growing number of breast cancer survivors nationwide.
Thirty-five Octobers have passed since the National Cancer Act of 1971 was signed into law. Referred to as the "War on Cancer," this groundbreaking legislation made conquering cancer a national priority. After all, we had recently put a man on the moon; no scientific challenge seemed too daunting.
Remarkably, putting a man on the moon proved easier than curing the hundred or so disease entities comprising cancer; it became painfully evident that declaring war on cancer was easier said than done. However, as hope for a "silver bullet" cure was tempered by our growing knowledge of cancer's vast biologic complexities, a national cancer awareness movement was beginning to bloom. As we know now, it proved to be a good thing, for physicians and patients alike.
Lest we lose sight of our accomplishments, it is important to remember that in the early 1970s breast cancer was largely a taboo subject, rarely discussed outside of the physician's office. There were no Internet websites or advocacy groups to turn to for information and support, resources we now take for granted. This lack of awareness and open public discussion left American women vulnerable and voiceless when it came to their breast health.
In 1974 Betty Ford became the first high-profile American woman to publicly discuss her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Mrs. Ford's public handling of her breast surgery when she was First Lady influenced women and helped prompt a significant change in public attitude.
In that same year, two other women who were diagnosed with breast cancer made prominent contributions to the advocacy movement: Susan G. Komen, whose legacy became the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, raising millions of dollars for breast cancer research, and journalist, Rose Kushner, whose unflinching personal memoir about her own battle with cancer inspired women to be proactive partners in their breast health decisions.
Many survivors took their cue from these pioneering women. They began discussing their own experiences and many women had their first mammograms, believing that breast cancer may, in fact, be treatable and not a death sentence. Moreover, this nascent awareness paved the road for the breast cancer advocacy movement, which would soon become a template for political and public healthcare activism in this country.