Shirley Temple Black was an iconic child movie superstar who later became an important diplomat. But her greatest legacy may be her pioneering role in breast cancer awareness.
Black died Monday at age of 85. No cause of death was announced.
In 1972 she startled the world when she spoke out from her hospital bed in Stanford, Calif., where she was recuperating from a mastectomy to remove a cancerous tumor in her left breast. At the time, women – especially movie stars – didn’t generally talk about their medical problems in public.
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Her openness led the way years later for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure,” both of which are credited with saving thousands of women’s lives.
“My doctors have assured me that they are 100 percent certain the cancer is removed,” Black said at the time. “The only reason I am telling you this is to convince other women to watch for any lump or unusual symptom. There is almost certain cure for this cancer if it is caught early enough.”
Black’s brave and candid approach to her illness was remarkable for the time. She told a reporter that she “reached up to feel the void” after her left breast was removed.
“It was an amputation, and I faced it,” she said.
After going public with her illness, she received 50,000 letters of support. Black’s decision to speak out helped pave the way for later high-profile breast cancer survivors including former first lady Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller, both of whom wrote books on the subject in an effort to help other women with the disease.
Her enduring contributions to women’s health were recognized as recently as two years ago, when the Journal for Women’s Health lauded her not only as the “first public figure to come forward and write about breast cancer,” but also for her contributions to the then-fledgling consumer health movement.
When Black underwent her surgery, women routinely went into the hospital thinking they were going in for a breast biopsy only to awaken from surgery to find their breasts gone.
Doctors and family members often believed women wouldn’t be able to handle the news if they were told prior to surgery that they needed a mastectomy. That mentality, thanks in part to Black’s efforts, is considered unacceptable today.
Black wrote in McCall’s magazine that it was outrageous that women should not have the right to make their own decisions about treatment, saying, “The doctor can make the incision, I’ll make the decision.”
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