Educational Information

Women Who Changed the
Face of Breast Cancer

Women Who Changed the <br> Face of Breast Cancer

March is Women’s History Month and is a time to reflect on and celebrate the women who have played and continue to play pivotal roles in American history and society. From leading advancements in science, the arts, societal change, medicine, and beyond, women have been vital forces in making America what it is today. 

For a disease that affects 1 in 8 women in the United States, it is no surprise that women have been fundamental trailblazers in breast cancer study, research, support, and advocacy. This Women’s History Month, we celebrate these women and the many more who have contributed so much to the care and support of those impacted by a breast cancer diagnosis.

Important Names in Breast Cancer History

Beginning in the 1940s, each decade of American history has been marked by extraordinary accomplishments and voices of activism from women in the pursuit of supporting and improving the outcomes of those facing a breast cancer diagnosis.


Breast cancer was considered a taboo “women’s disease” in the 1940s. But thanks to vocal women who intuitively knew the importance of advocating for themselves and others, that mindset began to slowly change.

Mary Lasker

Mary Lasker

After losing a friend to cancer in 1943 and learning how little money was directed toward cancer research, Mary Lasker began advocating that more funds be directed to cancer research, leading to massive donations made to the American Cancer Society (ACS) and later to governmental funding for the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Mary’s relentless drive to invoke change and her accomplishments in advocacy and fundraising began to have an immediate impact on breast cancer patients, and began to change how women were perceived in circles of power and influence.


The 1950s saw some improvements in breast cancer treatment options, as well as the rise of women demanding better care and support during and after their breast cancer treatment.

Reach to Recovery book by Terese Lasser

Terese Lasser

After undergoing a traumatic radical mastectomy for a malignant growth in 1952, Terese Lasser was disappointed in the lack of physical and emotional follow-up care offered by her surgeon. As a result, Terese founded the Reach to Recovery program in 1954 to address issues medical professionals at the time did not feel were important, such as the stigma surrounding breast cancer, intimacy after breast cancer, physical rehabilitation, and access to prostheses, paving the way for the women’s health movement by providing social support and encouragement to women experiencing breast cancer.


The medical breakthroughs in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment of the 1960s led to many important and meaningful discoveries, some spearheaded by women in the fields of science and medicine.

Dr. Jane C. Wright with microscope

Dr. Jane C. Wright

Hailed for her pioneering work in chemotherapy—shifting it from an experimental, last-resort treatment to a more effective option—Dr. Wright, known as the “godmother of chemotherapy,” spearheaded research on the drug methotrexate to treat breast and skin cancers, paving the way for millions of cancer patients and survivors. Today, methotrexate remains one of the main chemotherapy drugs for treating breast cancer, as well as lung cancer, leukemia, and many other types of cancer.

At the culmination of her 40-year career, Dr. Wright had changed the face of chemotherapy and medicine, published a wealth of articles that continue to serve as the basis for modern cancer treatment, and established a legacy of innovation worthy of continued recognition. Read more about Dr. Wright’s incredible contributions to the field of breast cancer research in Dr. Jane C. Wright’s Powerful Legacy of Firsts.


The 1970s saw many influential and high-profile women come forward publicly to share their personal experiences with breast cancer. These women chose to share about their diagnoses through national television and print media as a way to support other breast cancer patients, raise awareness for the disease, and empower women to play active roles in their healthcare decisions.

Babette Rosmond

Babette Rosmond

Famed author and editor of Better Living and Seventeen Magazine, Babette Rosmond was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1971 after finding an olive-sized lump in her breast. Not satisfied with her first doctor’s treatment approach, Babette was vocal about her decision to seek a second opinion. Babette’s act of self-advocacy empowered women nationwide to take more active roles in their healthcare and patient-doctor relationships. 

Shirley Temple Black

Shirley Temple Black

Shirley Temple Black was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1973, a time when breast cancer was rarely discussed in public. Rather than remain silent, Shirley spoke openly about her diagnosis and mastectomy, helping other women feel comfortable to do the same. Though she was most famous for being an adored child star, Shirley used her fame to bring awareness to breast cancer and comfort to women experiencing it.

First Lady Betty Ford at the White House

First Lady Betty Ford

First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974, shortly after her husband became President. The First Lady openly addressed her diagnosis and became a leading voice in the benefits of early detection. Within weeks of her diagnosis, thousands of women nationwide began visiting cancer centers for early detection screenings.

Second Lady Happy Rockefeller with husband, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller

Second Lady Happy Rockefeller

Happy Rockefeller, wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974 after finding a lump in her left breast during a breast self-exam. Happy underwent a radical mastectomy of her left breast, followed by a prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy of her right breast. Happy’s experience further emphasized the importance of early detection and immediate treatment to women across the nation.


As breast cancer started to become less of a taboo topic in the 1980s, many women began advocating for themselves as survivors while encouraging and supporting other women facing disease, treatment, and survivorship.

Andre Lorde

Audre Lorde

Lauded African-American poet Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 44. Audre became the first woman to vocally oppose societal views that women with mastectomies should wear a prosthesis or have reconstructive surgery. Audre’s writings served as a galvanizing force to bring previously alienated survivors together in mutual support and solidarity and set the stage to make the physical realities of the disease more visible in the public eye.


As mortality rates from breast cancer began to drop in the 1990s, a testament to the increased impact of screening mammography and improved treatment for breast cancer, individuals and organizations began focusing on supporting patients at all stages of the breast cancer journey, from diagnosis through treatment and into survivorship.

Janelle Hail, NBCF Founder and CEO

Janelle Hail

After personally experiencing breast cancer in 1980, Janelle Hail committed her life to educating and advocating for women everywhere by founding National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) in 1991. NBCF’s mission is to provide help and inspire hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education, and support services. Because of Janelle’s determination that no one face breast cancer alone, NBCF has served over one million women since 1991 and continues to be a leading organization in breast cancer support and education.

Dr. Marisa C. Weiss

Dr. Marisa C. Weiss

Radiation oncologist Dr. Weiss was concerned about the lack of support and resources available to her cancer patients. Dr. Weiss founded Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) in 1991 to address the after-care needs of her patients. LBBC now provides trusted information and support to people nationwide who are affected by breast cancer.

Evelyn Lauder

After surviving breast cancer, Evelyn Lauder founded Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) in 1993 to address the lack of funding in breast cancer research. In 1992, Evelyn co-created the signature pink ribbon and launched the first Breast Cancer Awareness campaign within the Estée Lauder company. Through her high-profile advocacy, Evelyn raised awareness by placing breast health front and center in the public eye.


Today, many women continue to advocate for advancements in breast cancer prevention, patient care, and research. The attention these women bring to the cause generates the support women need when faced with a diagnosis.

Angelina Jolie and her mother

Angelina Jolie

After losing her mother to ovarian and breast cancer, megastar Angelina Jolie tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which increases a person’s chances of developing breast cancer. In 2013, Angelina underwent a prophylactic (preventative) double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing cancer. Her story has inspired increasing numbers of women to undergo genetic testing and preventative care, reducing their risk of breast cancer.

Joan Lunden with no hair on the cover of People Magazine

Joan Lunden

Longtime Good Morning America host Joan Lunden was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) in 2014. She later learned that she had dense breast tissue, a risk factor for breast cancer. In Joan’s 2015 book, Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival, Joan wrote candidly about what she learned from her breast cancer experience, and educated women on the risks that dense breast tissue pose. An advocate for women everywhere, Joan has shared her experience with thousands nationwide, encouraging them to persevere and thrive despite a cancer diagnosis.

Those affected by breast cancer today have better access to education, treatment, and resources due to the culmination of efforts by passionate women impacted by breast cancer who were never satisfied with the status quo and who gave their expertise and voices to the ongoing quest to eradicate breast cancer. We celebrate these women and their achievements this Women’s History Month!

National Breast Cancer Foundation is here for you and your loved ones. Whether you need support, education, or help during treatment, we have a team dedicated to getting you the help you deserve.

Publish Date: February 29, 2024


  1. Her name is Audre Lorde (AW-dree LORD; born Audrey Geraldine Lorde; February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992) not “Andre Lorde” as you have written.

    • Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. We have corrected the error.

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