Candid Cancer: Geraldine Ferraro pressed on in life and with cancer
Today, no one questions whether women can raise the money, take the heat or have the stamina to run in tough political campaigns. No one questions whether we can run boardrooms or operating rooms. And for that, we can thank the women who the blazed trails before us.
This morning, we lost one of our greatest trailblazers, Geraldine Ferraro, to multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. And my heart is heavy.
She was a congresswoman from Queens, N.Y. when, in 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale chose her to be his running mate, and she became the first woman ever to run for vice president of the United States. At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that year, she accepted.
"My name is Geraldine Ferraro," she began. "I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."
Her speech launched eight minutes of cheers and tears as another glass ceiling shattered. On the campaign trail, she often drew more attention than Mondale, but in the end, Ronald Reagan won the election.
Geraldine Ferraro went on to several important roles, including advocating for women who were raped during ethnic conflict in the former Yugloslavia and serving as the ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
And then in 1998 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It didn't stop her from continuing to work tirelessly to improve the lives of others, and she was often a voice for those who would otherwise not have been heard.
In 2001, she went public with her illness when she testified at Congressional hearings for the passage of the Hematological Cancer Research Investment and Education Act, which allocated funds for blood cancer research and created the Geraldine Ferraro Cancer Education Program. She became a frequent speaker on the disease and an avid supporter and honorary board member of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
I knew Geraldine Ferraro not as the politician or successful businesswoman that she was, but as a warm, witty and caring fellow blood cancer survivor. Don't get me wrong. It's not that we were close friends, except for a few brief moments back in the fall of 2004.
I had contacted her office to see if she'd be willing to read a draft of my book and perhaps make a comment for the cover. Her secretary asked me to send a draft which I did, never really expecting to hear from Ms. Ferraro.
Imagine my surprise when I answered the phone about a month later, and the voice said, "Hi, this is Geraldine Ferraro, and I'm calling for Betsy." And after I replied, "This is Betsy," what do you suppose she said?
With a warm chuckle, as if she were my very best friend, she asked, "Doesn't cancer suck?" Talk about an ice breaker. Here was a woman who ran in the top political circles blasting cancer just like the rest of us.
We spoke for nearly half an hour. She told me about reading my book on a cross-country flight, and she said that she laughed and cried as she read it because she shared so many of my feelings and fears — and she divulged some of hers.
With cancer, she told me that there were days that it was hard for her to get up and get going and days that it was hard to keep going, but not pressing on was just not an option.
I was amazed by her candor, but I have learned that cancer is a great equalizer and that perfect strangers often connect with raw honesty. I'll never forget that call, nor will I ever forget that we spoke simply as two women who shared a common experience as if we were old friends.
Most of all, I'll never forget that she said, "Not pressing on is just not an option."
Most will remember Geraldine Ferraro for her political career. I will remember her for pressing on for the rest of us, even when it was hard for her. It's what she did throughout her life. She wanted no thanks for it, no pat on the back. It's just who she was and the way she lived. And it made the world a better place.
To her family, my deepest condolences, along with thanks for sharing this extraordinary woman who cleared the way for so many women today. She'll be deeply missed by many.
Next Friday, April 1: War As A Metaphor For Cancer Can Be Relieved of Duty
Previous installments of Candid Cancer are archived here.
Betsy de Parry is the author of The Roller Coaster Chronicles, a book about her experience with cancer and the shorter, serialized version she wrote for annarbor.com. Find her on Facebook or email her.