Susan Ford Bales is shown standing at a podium.
Susan Ford Bales, who has supported the Candid Conversations event since its inception, said her mom would be so pleased with the event. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

Susan Ford Bales understands why many women fail to make breast cancer detection and prevention a priority.

They’re too focused on everyone else’s needs.

“A lot of women are the caretakers,” she said. “They take care of everybody but themselves.”

She hopes Candid Conversations, a breast cancer awareness event inspired by first lady Betty Ford’s openness about the disease, will motivate more women to focus on their health.

“Take care of yourself. Put yourself first,” urged Bales, the daughter of former President Gerald R. Ford and Betty Ford.

That means making time for a monthly breast exam, to schedule a mammogram, or to exercise and eat a healthy diet. That can be difficult while juggling a full slate of family responsibilities, she acknowledged.

“But if you’re not going to be around, you’re not doing much for anybody,” she said. “You need to look at the big picture.”

Betty Ford stands on a table and smiles big.
Full of life and vigor, Betty Ford tackled breast cancer and raised awareness about an issue that was often kept quiet. (For Spectrum Health)

Bales said her mother would be “extremely proud” of Candid Conversations and the momentum surrounding breast cancer awareness, research and detection.

When Betty Ford learned she had breast cancer in 1974, people typically talked about the disease in whispers―when they discussed it at all. As first lady, she made a conscious decision to go public with her diagnosis so she could help other women.

Since then, research has led to great strides in early detection, treatments and survival rates for breast cancer.

“We’ve come a long way,” Bales said.

She added she has breast cancer on both sides of her family tree.

Years before her mother’s diagnosis, her paternal grandmother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner Ford, underwent breast surgery. Bales and her doctors believe the cause was breast cancer―although the family did not call the disease by that name.

Susan Ford Bales is shown with Betty Ford.
Susan Ford Bales continues to raise awareness about breast cancer to this day, urging everyone to be a Betty. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

“They called it milk-duct disease,” she said.

Her grandmother “pinned a note to her sheets when they did the surgery,” Bales said. “She said if you’re going to take one, take them both. And they did.”

Because of her family medical history, Bales decided to do genetic testing in 2012 for the BRCA gene mutations, which carry a higher risk of breast cancer.

“It came up negative,” she said. “I am thankful.”

Even as she encouraged women to be proactive about breast cancer detection, Bales also urged them not to be too hard on themselves if they fall short of their goals. If you forget to do a self-exam one month, forgive yourself and make a point to do it the next month, she advised.

“If you do get diagnosed, be a Betty Ford,” she added. “Talk about it. Share about it. Help others. Volunteer.”