Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thank You Betty Ford

Official White House Photo 1974

I celebrate the life of Betty Ford and send a kiss of gratitude to her as she begins the next stage of her journey. I remember when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974. I was twenty-three years old and already badly disconnected from my body.  I was uncomfortable with the open way she discussed her cancer and her mastectomy. I wondered how she would be with her husband afterward. And I wondered if he would still want her. 

My father had colon cancer when I was thirteen. He had surgery and survived. I knew he was sick and I knew he had an operation but I was never told, and was too well conditioned to secrets to ask, what the surgery was. It was months later when my brother-in-law mentioned my father's cancer and saw my shock that anyone realized I did not know it was cancer. Cancer was a shameful secret and colon cancer even more so. Breast cancer was talked about in whispers and with more sorrowful shame. It was a "female problem" and not for public, or for that matter private, discourse. Betty Ford just blew the doors off that. Not only did she say she had breast cancer; she said the "m" word, mastectomy. It was the first time I heard that spoken aloud. She even allowed her picture to be taken while still in the hospital. This all made me terribly uneasy, somewhat embarrassed, and confused. Then she did the most surprising thing; she recovered! Not only did she not die, she thrived. And her husband seemed as devoted to her as ever. 

Thirty-five years later, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it is a different world. People wear pink ribbons, walk and run to raise money, have support groups, and talk openly about breast replacement, scars, treatment, everything! Yet, I still felt vaguely ashamed of having a problem with a "female” part. I wondered if I would be considered defective, less than desirable, or damaged goods. Those early imprinted messages run deep. But I blogged about it, joined support groups, and talked with other women, lots and lots of other women. I am just realizing now that I have not talked with men very much. I was in the middle of an ugly divorce and did not get the kind of support Betty Ford got from her husband. I am just now realizing the example he set. He clearly still loved her and stood by her. She was what was important, not her body, not her breasts. He loved her. I mourn that I did not have that and that rejection there wounded me further. Gerald Ford was President of the United Sates of America and did not feel he needed a perfect, two-breasted wife to complete his image.

What I did have, and celebrate to this day, was a legion of women. Not just friends and family but strangers met through various support groups. For the first time in my life I talked about my body and a struggle I was having about my body with other human beings. I had been silenced early on, programmed to not mention anything to do with my body or sexuality or even sensuality. I have a male therapist I trust and he was magnificent in his understanding and encouragement. A few friends’ husbands were sympathetic, and while I appreciated their sympathy it made me realize more acutely the lack in my life. It was the women who understood and saw me through to the other side. And Betty Ford, by her brave example, was first in line. 

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