Former first lady Betty Ford, left, took the rare step of discussing her breast cancer diagnosis. (AP)
Grand Rapids— As the daughter of Betty Ford, the woman credited with changing American attitudes toward breast cancer, Susan Ford Bales wondered: What was her risk for the disease?
About a year ago, after her mother’s death, Bales decided to see if she had inherited one of the BRCA gene mutations that carry a sharply increased risk of breast cancer.
“I had the genetic test done,” she said. “I don’t carry the gene.”
Bales, the daughter of former President Gerald R. Ford and first lady Betty Ford, discussed her genetic risks in an interview recently after taking part in a breast cancer seminar sponsored by Spectrum Health at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids.
When she learned her test result, Bales said, “I was ecstatic.”
Her concern was not just for herself but for also her two daughters and her granddaughter. If she carried the gene mutation, she could have passed it on to them. To know she was not a carrier was a big relief.
“I could still get breast cancer. It takes my numbers down some,” she said.
Betty Ford, who died July 8, 2011, was never tested for a breast cancer gene mutation, Bales said.
The average American woman has a 12.5 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, said Dr. Judy Hiemenga, a geneticist with Spectrum Health.
Most cases are diagnosed in women who have no family history of the disease. But those who carry the BRCA 1 and 2 genes face risks of 50-85 percent. Many of those who carry the abnormal genes eventually opt for a double mastectomy to prevent cancer, Hiemenga said.
Bales advised those worried about their risks to talk to a genetics counselor about whether to be tested.
Speaking at the seminar, she recalled how her parents discussed whether her mother should talk publicly about her breast cancer — or even mention the word “breast” in public — when she was diagnosed in 1974. Betty Ford said it was time to end the silence about the disease.
“In an instant, Betty Ford changed the history of women’s health,” Bales said.