Social-Political Aspects

Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic by Anne S. Kasper and Susan J. Ferguson, Editors (Palgrave McMillan, 2002).

This collection of articles considers how breast cancer came to be a social problem. It looks at how economics, politics, gender, social class, and race-ethnicity have influenced the science behind research, spurred the growth of a breast cancer industry, generated media portrayals of women with the disease, and defined and influenced women’s experiences with breast cancer. The contributors address the social construction of breast cancer as an illness and as an area of scientific controversy, advocacy, and public policy. Chapters on the history of breast cancer, the health care system, the environment, and the marketing of breast cancer, among others, tease apart the complex social forces that have shaped our collective and individual responses to breast cancer.

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Harming America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Picador, 2010).

Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking and shows its reach into every corner of American life, from Evangelical megachurches to the medical establishment, and to the business community, where the refusal to consider negative outcomes–like mortgage defaults–contributed directly to economic disaster. Ehrenreich exposes the downside of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial–poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage. Chapter 1 focuses on how positive thinking has become a mandate for someone diagnosed with cancer and critiques the assumption that optimism is an opportunity for personal growth and a way to afford survival benefits to the diagnosed.

Cancer Butch (PDF)  by S. Lochlann Jain (Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 22, Iss. 4, pp. 501-538, 2007).

In this scholarly article, Lochlann Jain presents a queer analysis of the ways gender is constituted and inhabited in relation to industrial capitalism and the distribution of suffering. She theorizes the nexus of shame, illness, and sexuality and disentangles the alliances between breasts and gender and how they have been marked and framed through various modes of beauty, shock, and shame. In addition to allowing space for queer identities (and acknowledgement of the fact that lesbians may be the most undertreated group in the United States), Jain recognizes the basic human costs of U.S.-style capitalism and its uses of suffering, illness and death in the context of profit.

Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer by Sharon Batt (Spinifex Press, 1994).

Journalist Sharon Batt was a healthy athletic woman when she found a lump in her breast, and after the diagnosis she set out to understand her disease. It led her on a journey to unravelling the politics of medical research, of media and fundraisers who play the breast cancer ‘game’. This is one of the early comprehensive carefully researched and passionately written critiques on the politics of breast cancer. The National Women’s Health Network said this book is, “Feminist journalism at its best – an extraordinary amount of medical, historical, and personal material in a style that is as gripping as a novel … a brilliant analysis.” A classic text, Patient No More shows how the seeds of the breast cancer industry we see today were planted decades ago.

Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health by Gayle Sulik (Oxford University Press, 2011, 2012).

Reveals the hidden costs of the pink ribbon as an industry, one in which breast cancer functions as a brand name with a pink ribbon logo. Based on historical and ethnographic research, analysis of awareness campaigns and advertisements, and hundreds of interviews, Pink Ribbon Blues shows that while millions walk, run, and purchase products for a cure, cancer rates rise, industry thrives, and breast cancer is stigmatized anew for those who reject the pink ribbon model. Even as Sulik points out the flaws of “pink ribbon culture,” she outlines the positives and offers alternatives. The paperback edition (2012) includes a new Introduction investigating Susan G. Komen for the Cure and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Samantha King (University of Minnesota, 2006).

Sociologists Samantha King challenges the commercialization of the breast cancer movement in this analysis of how breast cancer has been transformed from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy to a market-driven industry of survivorship. She traces how pink ribbons became associated with breast cancer charities, the relationships between the annual massing for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and other high-profile events with huge corporate sponsorships, and the history and impact of cause-related marketing. King’s insight into the politics of philanthropy and exploitation of good will sheds light on the limits of consumption-based advocacy.

Taking Charge of Breast Cancer by Julia Ericksen (University of California Press, 2008).

Showcasing diverse voices and experiences, this book illuminates an all-too-common experience by exploring how women respond to breast cancer diagnosis. Drawing from interviews in which women describe their journeys from diagnosis through treatment and recovery, sociologist Julia Ericksen, herself a breast cancer survivor, explores women’s trust in their doctors, feelings about appearance and sexuality, and views about traditional and nontraditional medicine. What emerges is a picture of how cultural messages about breast cancer shape women’s ideas about the illness, impact relationships, and lead some to become activists. The book reveals how we narrate our illnesses and how these narratives shape the paths we travel once diagnosed.

The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer: Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism by Maren Klawiter (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Maren Klawiter analyzes the breast cancer movement to show the broad social impact of how diseases come to be medically managed and publicly administered. Examining surgical procedures, early detection campaigns, and discourses of risk, Klawiter demonstrates that these practices initially inhibited, but later enabled, collective action. The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer ultimately challenges our understanding of the origins, politics, and future of the breast cancer movement. Opens a window to broader changes transforming medically advanced societies and challenges our understanding of the origins, politics, and future of the breast cancer movement.

The Paradox of Hope: Journeys Through a Clinical Borderland by Cheryl Mattingly (University of California Press, 2010).

This book is not about breast cancer but may be of interest to those exploring the discourse of hope. Grounded in intimate moments of family life in and out of hospitals, this book explores the hope that inspires us to try to create lives worth living, even when no cure is in sight. The Paradox of Hope focuses on a group of African American families in a multicultural urban environment, many of them poor and all of them with children diagnosed with serious chronic medical conditions. Mattingly depicts the multicultural urban hospital as a border zone where race, class, and chronic disease intersect. This innovative ethnographic study illuminates communities of care that span clinic and family, and shows how hope is created as an everyday reality amid trying circumstances. Read a Breast Cancer Consortium Review »

The Personal and the Political: Women’s Activism in Response to the Breast Cancer And AIDS Epidemics by Ulrike Boehmer, PhD (SUNY Press, 2000).

Drawing on the experiences of thirty-seven diverse women who are active in the AIDS and breast cancer movements, Boehmer provides an in-depth look at the social and political dimensions of AIDS and breast cancer within the context of social movement and feminist theories. While it is generally assumed that activists’ reasons for getting involved in either the AIDS or breast cancer movements differ, Boehmer uncovers similarity in women’s motivations, finding that activism depends on both a personal and a political link to the disease. The work pays particular attention to diversity issues such as race, class, and sexual orientation and explores the women’s motivations, how they view their activism, and how their activism relates to their identities.

The Politics of Cancer Revisited by Samuel Epstein (East Ridge Press, 1998) — Backed by meticulous documentation, Epstein charges that the cancer establishment remains myopically fixated on damage control — diagnosis and treatment, and basic genetic research with, not always benign, indifference to cancer prevention research and failure of outreach to Congress, regulatory agencies, and the public with scientific information on unwitting exposures to a wide range of avoidable causes of cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) are also accused of pervasive conflicts of interest, particularly with the cancer drug industry.

The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis (Basic Books, 2009).

Why has the “War on Cancer” languished, focusing mainly on findingand treating the disease and downplaying the need to control and combat cancer’s basic causes—tobacco, the workplace, radiation, and the general environment? As epidemiologist Devra Davis shows in this superbly researched exposÉ, the War on Cancer has followed the commercial interests of industries that generated a host of cancer-causing materials and products. In short, the war has targeted the wrong enemies with the wrong weapons, failing to address known cancer causes.


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