Jill Biden may be the first lady of the United States, but that did not exempt her, or several of her predecessors, from the conversation that millions of citizens have had with doctors hearing the words, “It might be cancer.”
Jill Biden underwent a procedure known as a Mohs surgery, where two of the spots on her eyelid and chest were confirmed as basal cell carcinomas. Thankfully, she is expected to make a full recovery and she will have an opportunity to look to previous first ladies — namely Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush — for inspiration on how to use her platform to raise awareness and educate the public about cancer.
Less than two months into her husband’s unexpected presidency, first lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with cancer. “Lying in the hospital, thinking of all those women going for cancer checkups because of me, I’d come to recognize more clearly the power of the woman in the White House. Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help,” recalled Betty Ford remembering her story of going public with her breast cancer.
She didn’t have the luxury of the three months to study, plan and think about the role of first lady, like her predecessors.
This unique first lady had what some in the media called “on the job training,” becoming one of the greatest trailblazers in her exclusive club of first ladies by turning her personal misfortunes into a public service and saving countless lives.
First daughter Susan Ford shed light on the magnitude of her mother’s public actions. “You didn’t say breast on TV, you barely said cancer on TV so to put the two together and then have the first lady say it was earth-shattering, earthquake news.” Such candor by a first lady or any public figure of the time was practically unheard of.
In her memoirs, Betty Ford wrote “I got a lot of credit for having gone public with my mastectomy, but if I hadn’t been the wife of the President of the United States, the press would not have come racing after my story, so in a way it was fate…. I watched television and saw on the news shows lines of women queued up to go in for breast examinations because of what happened to me.”
People across the United States flooded the White House with an outpouring of support. Friends and more set up an answering service in attempt to thank all who wished the first lady well, and eventually a card of appreciation was created and sent. Betty Ford even helped second lady Happy Rockefeller.
Soon after Ford went public with her cancer, Rockefeller was in the hospital having surgery. According to Ford, “Nelson Rockefeller said on television that my having told the world I had cancer had helped save Happy’s life because it had caused her to go – in time – for a checkup.”
Ford’s voice led to awareness campaigns, research dollars and more. Even in her post White House years, she used her platform to help Americans and formed the Betty Ford Center to save even more people struggling with the disease of alcohol addiction.
Betty Ford was not alone, as Nancy Reagan too had the misfortune of being diagnosed with breast cancer during her tenure as first lady and went public, reminding all women that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. Rather than praising her for being so transparent, the media repulsively attacked her course of treatment of a double mastectomy. “I resented these statements, and I still do. This is a very personal decision, one that each woman must make for herself. This was my choice, and I don’t believe I should have been criticized for it. For some women, it would have been wrong, but for me it was right,” recalled Reagan.
Three administrations later, first lady Laura Bush thought she had an insect bite that was actually skin cancer. While she did not initially go public with it, thinking it was minor, she decided the best thing to do was to be transparent to help others. Bush was wearing a Band-Aid on her shin during a Hanukkah celebration when it was noticed by the press.
The first lady’s office immediately responded to inquiries with candor, stating that the first lady had a squamous cell carcinoma removed. Susan Whitson, the first lady’s press secretary stated, “Because of Mrs. Bush’s early detection and treatment, the area on her leg is healing well and it has not interrupted her schedule” prompting newspapers, magazines and more to highlight skin cancer and the significance of detecting it early. Bush also used her platform to highlight another health issue, becoming a heart disease awareness advocate through her “Heart Truth” red dress campaign.
First ladies of states have also championed their personal hardship to help other women impacted by cancer. Last year, Casey DeSantis, the first lady of Florida, had breast cancer surgery and decided to be public about it. Her advocacy helped secure over $100 million in recurring funding for cancer research.
While Jill Biden is no stranger to fighting to end cancer, with President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, her advocacy could be expanded to include helping people with a similar personal experience, to highlight the most common and fastest-growing cancer in the United States.
“There are more skin cancers diagnosed in the United States than all other cancers combined,” says leading Miami dermatologist Jill Waibel, M.D., “Early detection is key to beating the disease, which is why public awareness is so important so we can get patients into the office for skin cancer screening.”
In 1974 women were lined up to have their breast exam, and today Jill Biden could be the catalyst to help Americans line up to have their skin checked and learn more about how to prevent and treat this form of cancer. First lady Melania Trump used the hashtag #powerofthefirstlady early on in her tenure because it is true that the position is powerful, influential and impactful.
First ladies have used their position to advocate for literacy, healthy eating, protecting children and women around the world, foster care, drug prevention and sometimes for sharing their own personal journey. The position has power and Jill Biden has an incredible opportunity to help Americans understand the importance of preventive measures, early detection, and research and development for skin cancer, which could save millions of lives.