Celebrating changemakers: Women who positively impacted breast cancer care

LBBC Viewpoints
March 2, 2022
By: 
Fern Glazer
Collage of early changemakers and LBBC leadership volunteers

In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, we celebrate women of the past who have positively changed the breast cancer experience — from diagnosis and treatment to survival. These changemakers helped #BreakTheBias and prioritized breast cancer as a public health problem that requires urgent attention. 

As we recognize the invaluable contributions these women (and so many others) have made, we also give a shout out to our corps of devoted LBBC volunteers who are carrying the legacy of those who came before them forward, and who are inspiring others to continue this important work.  

Early changemakers 

Jane Cook WrightJane Cook Wright (1919-2013) 
Wright saved millions of lives by creating ways to make chemotherapy more effective — and she did it facing both racial and gender discrimination. During her trailblazing career she was the only female founding member of ASCO in 1964, the first Black woman to be named associate dean of a nationally recognized medical institution in 1967, and the first woman to be elected president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971. 

Eleanor MontagueEleanor Montague (1926-2018) 
A Houston-based radiation oncologist who helped pioneer breast-conserving cancer therapy at a time when women were mostly only offered radical mastectomy. When she died at age 92, the Associated Press described her as “a rare woman in cancer care in the 1960s … an advocate of patient participation in treatment as well as an early proponent for the combined use of surgery and radiation in the treatment of tumors of the breast, an approach she implemented at MD Anderson Cancer Center before it later became standard care everywhere.” 

Henrietta LacksHenrietta Lacks (1920-1951) 
A Black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, research on which contributed to numerous important scientific advances. Though her cell line contributed to countless breakthroughs in biomedical research for diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and polio, Lacks’ cells were collected without her or her family’s consent. Lacks’ case contributed to a mistrust of the medical community among people of color that we are still working to overcome today. 

Betty FordBetty Ford (1918-2011) 
When, in 1973, then-First Lady Betty Ford openly spoke about her diagnosis of malignant breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, she ended decades of silence about an untalked-about disease. Ford would go on to use her position of power to create more change — including influencing policy and advocating for women’s rights around decisions that impacted their lives. In 1985, Ford helped kick off an event that we now know as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

Rose KushnerRose Kushner (1929-1990)  
An American journalist and pioneering breast cancer patient advocate, Kushner is credited as the single most important person to eliminate the one-step radical mastectomy. Kushner also introduced a congressional bill authorizing Medicare coverage for screening mammograms — a bill that became law in in 1991 — guaranteeing that older women could get access to mammograms despite their low income. She died of breast cancer in 1990.  

Bella KaufmanBella Kaufman (1911-2021) 
An Israeli oncologist lauded for her pioneering work in breast cancer research, specifically, BRCA mutations and genetics. An investigator on many important clinical trials, including those key to the development of PARP inhibitors for the treatment of BRCA-related cancers. The Director of the Institute of Breast Oncology and President of the oncology department at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, Kaufman died last year of metastatic breast cancer. 

Mary Clair KingMary-Claire King (1946-present) 
An American geneticist, King transformed cancer genetics and oncology with the discovery of inherited susceptibility to breast cancer due to mutation of a gene she named BRCA1. King is also a pioneer in other areas of science, including the development of DNA sequencing for the identification of victims of human rights’ violations. Today, she continues genetics research at UW Medicine. 
 

The next generation 

You don’t have to be a first lady, a medical professional — or even a woman — to help improve the lives of people impacted by breast cancer. During LBBC’s 30-plus years, dedicated volunteers of all genders have pushed forward change in a variety of ways. They have sat on research panels, told their personal stories to local and national news organizations, planned rallies, written blogs and books, launched support programs, and met with legislators to demand more research dollars are spent on understanding this complex disease in all its stages. 

Many of these individuals got their start in one of LBBC’s leadership volunteer programs, the Young Advocates, Hear My Voice Metastatic Advocacy program, or the LBBC Breast Cancer Helpline. Some of these powerful voices are no longer with us, and others are actively making their voice heard to expand the public understanding of and the conversation around breast cancer to save lives. Our volunteers continue to change the trajectory of breast cancer care for everyone. 

During Women’s History Month, on International Women’s Day, and every day, we celebrate these individuals who have pushed forward change. 

If you are interested in learning more about patient advocacy and how you can get involved, LBBC’s Leadership Volunteer programs are a great place to start.