Medicine: Breast Cancer: Fear and Facts

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Vice President-designate Nelson Rockefeller and his wife Happy waved at reporters in the lobby of Manhattan's Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases, where only eight days before, Happy had undergone surgery for breast cancer. "We're very grateful to Betty Ford for her example to all of us," said Rockefeller. "I would like to say that self-examination and courage on the part of women throughout the world can do for them—in case they need it —what it did for Happy."

The Rockefellers had good reason to be grateful. Two weeks earlier, after reading about First Lady Betty Ford's well-publicized operation for breast cancer, Happy decided to do what doctors urge all women to do regularly: examine her breasts for suspicious growths. To her dismay, she found a small lump in her left breast. Happy wasted no time asking for an appointment with her gynecologist, who found several more lumps. Then she checked into the hospital for a biopsy to determine if the growths were in fact cancerous. When the tests proved positive, doctors immediately performed a mastectomy. They amputated her breast and removed much of the underlying tissue as well as the lymph nodes under her left armpit.

Happy's quick action may well have saved her life. Doctors reported that the cancer had been discovered before it had a chance to infiltrate the lymph nodes and then begin spreading throughout her body. They pronounced her prospects for long-term survival "excellent."

Waiting List. With their admirable courage and frankness, Happy Rockefeller and Betty Ford have effected a profound change in the general attitude toward a dread disease. Women are showing a new willingness to discuss breast cancer openly, to face it directly. Across the nation they are besieging hospitals and doctors' offices, seeking examinations and information. Manhattan's Guttman Clinic, 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, and has placed women seeking examinations on a waiting list that extends to January. The American Cancer Society's division in Atlanta has been overwhelmed by phone calls from women inquiring about breast cancer, and two local hospitals offering free breast checks are now booked through next July. Dr. Robert Olson, a Chicago gynecologist, reports that his patient load has doubled. The publicity surrounding the Ford and Rockefeller operations has also had an impact overseas. In London, for example, the "Well Woman Clinic" at Royal Marsden Hospital has been so swamped with calls that it has appealed to women not to turn up without referral by a doctor.

That her lack of reticence about her illness has helped to produce so massive a reaction has been particularly gratifying to Mrs. Ford. "When other women have this same operation, it doesn't make any headlines," she told TIME Correspondent Bonnie Angelo last week. "But the fact that I was the wife of the President put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I'm sure I've saved at least one person—maybe more."

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