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Betty Ford's Life-Saving Legacy

In this photo taken, Oct. 4, 2009, new Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, left, is seen with his comrade Waliur Rehman, front center, during his meeting with media in Sararogha of Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border.
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Betty Ford is a courageous woman who has battled both breast cancer and addiction. National Correspondent Hattie Kauffman sat down with the former first lady, and with Betty Ford Center CEO John Schwarzlose, in an exclusive Early Show interview.

It was 20 years ago that the center opened in Palm Springs. Since then, it has become known worldwide for alcohol and drug treatment.

"It's really more than I dreamed 20 years ago," said Mrs. Ford.

It was really historic when she went public; people were shocked that a former first lady could have an addiction problem.

"Well, that is very true, and I felt the same way when I learned I had one," Mrs. Ford said, noting it was very hard for her 25 years ago.

"But, fortunately, my family saw the problem, and they got professional help to come in and do what we refer to as an intervention and that can be quite harrowing, and they all came together at the end, and said, 'We love you too much, Mother, to let you go,'" she said.

Betty Ford is credited with bringing the whole concept of addiction and recovery out of the closet.

"It's interesting because I still get notes from women who celebrate maybe their 15th, 20th anniversary, and they thank me from the standpoint of making it OK to go for treatment," she said.

When the former first lady went for treatment, she said she was very scared. "I didn't know what to expect, and I'm sure that's how our patients feel when they come walking through the doors."

And many have come through the doors of the treatment center that is named for her. In its 20 years, the Betty Ford Center has treated 56,000 people. All receive her personal touch.

"Every four weeks, Mrs. Ford lectures to the entire patient population, and she meets with patients at the counselors' request. So she's very much involved," said CEO Schwarzlose.

"I was very comfortable about going public with my addiction and treatment; I had been very public about breast cancer," said Mrs. Ford.

One breast cancer advocate said a lot women are alive today because of Betty Ford going public. It was unusual from the start. It was just weeks after her husband was sworn into office that a doctor found a lump in her breast. She immediately had a mastectomy, which she said made her very self-conscious afterwards.

"When I was before the public with my husband, and I know if I came downstairs for an evening with guests from another country, I was always thinking, 'Wel,l I suppose, at first appearance, they would look and say: Which one is it?'," she said with a laugh.

Mrs. Ford has addressed and conquered two potentially fatal diseases in women: breast cancer and addiction.

"I'm just one of many women who have…I can be very sympathetic those that go through situations more difficult. Both my husband and I feel very fortunate. We will be married 55 years. It has been a great trip," she said.

So great, that among those honoring Betty Ford this week, will be former first ladies: Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton.

"It's amazing how quick they were to accept the invitation, and how excited they all are about being here," said Schwarzlose, which must feel pretty good for Betty Ford.

"It does, and it's pretty awesome, and it's kind of scary, much as I know them all very well," she said.

A pretty exclusive club. Nobody knows what it's like to be a first lady unless she have been one.

"We all sympathize with each other, because we all know the pressures that you come under -- not only the demands on your time but the time schedules and very little privacy," she said.

To the ones currently struggling with drugs or alcohol, the former first lady said, "You have to know that there is help available; there's not only help but there's hope for them."

"There have been many people who told me they saw one of my interviews, and they looked at the television, and said, 'Well, if she can do it, I certainly can do it,'" she added.

This Friday night's gala is a fundraiser for the Betty Ford Center, and it is sold out, meaning the ticket sales alone raised more than $1 million.