The “Mad Men” Attitude About Cancer

Are you a fan of Mad Men? If you’re not familiar with this popular AMC series, it’s a period drama set inside a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960’s. If the show is an accurate reflection of that decade, things were drastically different from the world we know today.

Apparently, it was perfectly normal to enjoy an afternoon cocktail while smoking cigarettes at your place of business. Women were largely relegated to secretarial jobs, and the word “cancer” barely crossed anyone’s lips.

In Episode 3 of the fifth season, Betty Francis, the former wife of lead character, Don Draper, goes to her family physician to get a prescription for diet pills. During Betty’s examination, her doctor finds a nodule on her neck, and immediately orders tests for further investigation.

We are led to believe that she may be “very sick.” For a few days, Betty waits anxiously for the results with no explanation of what the lump could be and since it was the 60’s, she obviously couldn’t “Google” it. In that time span, she, nor her family, not even her doctor, ever use the word cancer.

In fact, the word is never mentioned until the very end of the show when Don confides in a co-worker.

While waiting for the news, Betty has a conversation with who the audience assumes is a woman being treated for cancer. They dance around the topic discussing everything from their emotions to treatment side effects yet never uttering that dreaded word.

At first I thought the absence of the word cancer was part of the subtlety of the show, which is one of the reasons it’s so critically acclaimed. But the talented writers of Mad Men have an uncanny ability to weave historical references into the stories.

After further research, I found this attitude about cancer was in fact, historically accurate.

Marvin Stone, M.D., director of oncology medical education and associate medical director of the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, remembers a time when many physicians didn’t tell their patients they had cancer. Dr. Stone has been practicing medicine since 1965 and says that many diagnosed with the disease were never even told what they were being treated for.

In fact, a 1961 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) confirms this. A survey of 219 physicians revealed that 90 percent “indicated a preference for not telling.”

This sounds ludicrous to us today, but like my college history professor liked to put it…it was just the “zeitgeist” of the day. The mind of the times.

“The attitude in those days was ‘What difference will it make if I tell them?’ Cancer was largely a death sentence back then,” adds Dr. Stone.

So what finally changed this mindset for the public to begin talking about cancer?

Dr. Stone credits what’s known as the “Betty Ford blip.” In 1974, first lady Betty Ford revealed she was undergoing a mastectomy as a treatment for breast cancer. Several weeks later, it was reported that Happy Rockefeller, wife of then vice president Nelson Rockefeller, was also being treated for the disease.

“This swung the pendulum,” says Dr. Stone. “These revelations marked the first time that anyone, especially public figures, talked openly about cancer. It paved the way for the rest of the country to openly discuss their own health.”

We’ve certainly come a long way in the last 50 years. Thankfully, we now have a heightened awareness about cancer that leads to early detection and more successful treatment options. I’m sure the hush-hush tone in those days, not to mention the limited treatments that were available, contributed to many people losing their battle with cancer.

“Several major advances have been made in medicine since then, but one of the biggest changes has been the doctor/patient relationship. It is much healthier. Physicians and patients have shifted from a paternalistic to a collegial relationship,” explains Dr. Stone. “It’s important that patients participate in their health care and help make decisions about treatment.”

Fortunately, Betty Francis’ tumor was determined to be benign. Her character won’t have to endure the stigma of living with cancer in the 1960’s. But I can’t help thinking of all the real people who weren’t so fortunate. How isolated they must have felt. The shame and loneliness they must have endured while trying to cope with such devastating news, all because they simply couldn’t talk about it.

We can’t criticize or judge this mentality because hindsight is 20/20. Society has a way of constantly moving forward. Mindsets change, stigmas are erased, and advances are made. We think we have it all figured out now, but what will younger generations think of us in 40 years?

Thankfully, I’ve never been diagnosed with cancer, but if I or any member of my family ever have to face that battle, I’m grateful that I live in a time where I have access to sophisticated treatments, I’m encouraged to seek support and I can write this blog post and use the word cancer as many times as I like.

Let’s hope the mistakes of the past never repeat themselves and that we continue to move forward with open minds and empathetic hearts.

About the author

Ashley Howland
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Ashley works in digital communications and social media. She enjoys covering health care news and is interested in health care social media.

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The “Mad Men” Attitude About Cancer