Breast Cancer Movement

Rose Kushner started the Women’s Breast Cancer Advisory Center – now the “Rose Kushner Breast Cancer Advisory Center” – after she discovered her own breast cancer in 1974.

A year later, the first of her four books about breast cancer was published “Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report.” “Why Me?” followed in 1982, and “Alternatives: New Developments in the War Against Breast Cancer” in 1985. “If You’ve Thought About Breast Cancer,” a series she started in 1979, is in its ninth edition.

In working for change within the system, many modern breast cancer activists followed Kushner’s feminist strategies within a professionalized advocacy movement that relies on evidence-based medicine and active patient involvement. Other advocates have not, however, creating a major split in the breast cancer movement around intensive lobbying, commercial interests, and medicalization itself.



The breast cancer movement has its roots in the women’s, patients’, and consumers’ rights movements of the 1970s, which set a new agenda for patients’ rights. Patient empowerment, information sharing, and the idea that lay people could learn medical knowledge was central. As a result individuals and groups began to question medical authority, demand information about medical procedures, and insist that patients should take a more central role medical decision-making. To this end public dialogue and local organizing fueled the expansion of assistance programs and organizations.

When organizing took a more political tone in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, breast cancer survivors started to formalize their networks in order to influence public policy and medical practice, and institutionalize funding streams for research and support systems. What transpired was a vibrant and successful health social movement that was committed to de-stigmatizing breast cancer, increasing awareness, promoting informed decision-making, distributing accurate and accessible information, providing emotional and practical support, challenging medical authority, and exposing medical practices to public scrutiny. Once breast cancer was out in the open, however, the trajectory started to shift.

By the early 1990s, the increased presence and visibility of resources and support groups, changes in public policy, and heightened media exposure elevated breast cancer’s social status from disease to epidemic. With this high level of social importance, the movement had more clout, as did the identity of the breast cancer survivor. Local organizing and group dynamics started to become incorporated into an overarching “culture of survivorship” oriented to optimism, personal empowerment, and the “survivor” as a new category of identity.

As the culture of survivorship was repackaged for mass distribution, the principles, strategies, and accomplishments of the breast cancer movement developed into a broader pink ribbon culture.

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Despite ongoing resistance from within the movement, mass dissemination diluted and homogenized breast cancer advocacy and the culture it produced. Key organizations and their missions became institutionalized into the broader cancer establishment.

The pink formation of Komen for the Cure’s trademarked pink ribbon (right) illustrates the merging of advocacy and industry as the resultant pink ribbon culture has come to rely on mass publicity, fundraising, and corporate influence. Pink ribbbon culture has become a dynamic and highly public dimension of American culture that appears to be as wholesome as baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.

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