As you may have heard, Shirley Temple Black died yesterday. Lots of nice tributes to her all over the internet, and they were certainly well-deserved. She brought a lot of joy to people at a time when they needed someone to bring them joy. I heard someone on the radio say that she brought optimism and hope to the world -- certainly something I could get behind.
I've seen and heard much less, though, about her role as a cancer heroine. I've looked at a few more longer articles about her life, and that small bit is kind of buried. Granted, she lived an eventful life as an actor, activist, and diplomat, but I think it's worth highlighting what she did for women with breats cancer -- and for cancer patients in general.
She was beginning her diplomatic career in the early 1970s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a mastectomy. At a time when cancer wasn't talked about much -- and breast cancer certainly wasn't talked about -- Temple Black held a press conference in her hospital room after the operation. Here's a copy of a newspaper story, complete with her picture. As the story points out, she was quoted as saying, "It is my fervent hope that women will not be afraid to go to their doctors for diagnosis when they have unusual symptoms. There is almost certain recovery from this form of cancer if it is caught early enough."
Betty Ford is often credited with being one of the women who came forward and talked publicly about her breast cancer, helping to remove the stigma. Shirley Temple Black did it two years earlier.
That makes them both heroines. The stigma didn't go away overnight. Cancer was something whispered about for a long time, and breast cancer even more so, given our culture's complicated view of the breast as nurturing but sexual. Getting women to talk about potential problems was a major victory. We're seeing the effects of that today.
Of course, I'm in favor of any attempt to make people more aware of cancer. I think it's important for people in a personal way to talk about their cancer, to not hide their fears, to communicate with others about their needs, to let doctors know what's going on. I know this from experience. But it's also important to talk about cancer because we don't ever want that stigma to return. If cancer becomes a shameful thing, then none of that personal talk will ever happen.
So celebrate Shirley Temple Black's extraordinary life -- as an actor, dancer, singer, activist, diplomat, and wonderful person. But be sure to add Cancer Heroine to that list.