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Body Politic #3: Taking on the Breast Cancer Industrial Complex

lyndsie bourgon

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One of the perks of attempting to forge a career from your home office as a writer is the amount of time you’re able to just sit back and read. I’ve convinced myself that this is “research”, but lately I’ve been reading almost everything, including, I’ll admit, trash.

Which is how I came to crack open a book—that could be considered part of that cringe-worthy genre “chick lit”—about a 20-something woman who’s diagnosed with breast cancer. The character is a lawyer (of course) who works too hard and is suddenly forced to take time off for chemotherapy.

Apart from my frustration surrounding how hard-working women in fiction always have to “take time off” to discover the truly important things in life (i.e.—family and relationships), I’m worried about this blatant focus on illness. Do you work 40-hour weeks? Maybe more? You’ll probably get sick, with breast cancer. The book I read had a tiny pink ribbon on the spine, and a message urging all women to be “vigilant”: so you’d better start getting your mammograms now.

While it’s been the prevailing thought that earlier is always better, American researchers came out this fall and said that mammograms shouldn’t be regularly performed on women younger than 50, because it has no effect on reducing breast cancer rates. And after that statement, all hell broke loose according to journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.

Last week, Ehrenreich wrote a piece for Salon where she discusses reactions of outrage to the new mammogram recommendations. In it she mentions how you could hear crickets from women when the Stupak amendment was introduced in the States, but the following call for fewer mammograms was met with outcries and protests. What’s worse—telling a woman she doesn’t need a mammogram before she’s 50, or denying all women abortion coverage?

She also notes that the medical effects on early, and regular, mammograms could actually lead to tumour growth and breast cancer in some cases.

“I’m not sure whether these mammograms detected the tumor or, along with many earlier ones, contributed to it: One known environmental cause of breast cancer is radiation, in amounts easily accumulated through regular mammography.”

Ehrenreich’s been all over lately, spreading her idea that positivity culture, especially when paired with breast cancer, is bullshit. If you have breast cancer, she says, you need treatment, not pink ribbons. Recently I heard her on NPR, where women called in to share stories of breast cancer groups that were so relentlessly positive, they felt isolated and alone in their sadness and anger.

Breast cancer in particular is an illness that riles up so many in the developed world. In October, everything from bank websites to GAP clothes to NFL playing fields are splayed with pink ribbons. We run, walk and fundraise “for the Cure.” It’s a disease that’s slowly on the rise in third world and developing countries, but which we’ve adopted as our own rallying ground.

I know. I get it. My extended family is something like 80 percent female, so I’m aware of the terror this cancer can hold. But we’re on a teeter-totter, balancing between excessive prevention methods, and the exaggerated cult of positivity that follows if that doesn’t work. Neither works to answer what truly causes breast cancer, and why we’ve only been able to treat it with heavy chemotherapy treatments. And neither works to truly rally women together to find a cure. Instead, we’re left with two camps: you’re either with us, or against us.

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