The Ugly Truth About The Breast Cancer Culture
Breast cancer culture
The Ugly Truth About The Breast Cancer Culture: Breast cancer culture, or pink ribbon culture, is the set of activities, attitudes, and values that surround and shape breast cancer in public. The dominant values are selflessness, cheerfulness, unity, and optimism. It is pro-doctor, pro-medicine, and pro-mammogram. Health care professionals are sources of information, but the rightness of their advice is not to be seriously questioned by women with breast cancer. Patients are not encouraged to ask where research money is going or if the research industry is making progress in finding the "cure". The emphasis on cheerfulness allows society to blame women for developing breast cancer and limits their responses to certain culturally determined scripts. The requirement of cheerful optimism arose from the then-popular theory that cancer had a psychosomatic origin and that people who were diagnosed with cancer had a "cancer personality" that was depressed, repressed, and self-loathing. Psychotherapy was therefore considered an adjunct treatment used to produce a cheerful, self-affirming identity. This theory was predominant among psychiatrists through the 1970s, but has since been discredited. In a process called benefit finding, the she-ro uses the emotional trauma of being diagnosed with breast cancer and the suffering of extended treatment to transform herself into a stronger, happier and more sensitive person who is grateful for the opportunity to become a better person. In particular, she sees breast cancer as an opportunity to give herself permission for necessary personal growth that she felt she was prohibited from or unable to make before. Breast cancer thereby becomes a rite of passage rather than a disease, with pink ribbon culture honoring the suffering of its she-roes by selecting them based on the amount of misery they have experienced, and leading women whose treatment is less painful or debilitating to feel excluded and devalued. The suffering, particularly the extended suffering of months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, forms a metaphorical type of ordeal or rite of passage that initiates women into the inner circle of breast cancer culture. Barbara Ehrenreich describes it this way:
Understood as a rite of passage, breast cancer resembles the initiation rites so exhaustively studied by Mircea Eliade: First there is the selection of the initiates—by age in the tribal situation, by mammogram or palpation here. Then come the requisite ordeals—scarification or circumcision within traditional cultures, surgery and chemotherapy for the cancer patient. Finally, the initiate emerges into a new and higher status—an adult and a warrior—or in the case of breast cancer, a "survivor".
Mainstream pink ribbon culture has aspects that are trivializing, silencing, and infantilizing. Women with breast cancer are surrounded by childish kitsch such as pink teddy bears and crayons, but there is no equivalent gift of toy cars for men diagnosed with prostate cancer. Women who choose not to conform to the culture may feel excluded and isolated; those who cannot conform to the prescribed triumphant script report feeling unable to share their stories honestly. Anger, negativity and fatalism transgress the feeling rules, and women with breast cancer who express anger or negativity are corrected by other women with breast cancer and members of the breast cancer support organizations. Appearing unattractive—such as going out in public with a bare, bald head if treatment causes temporary hair loss—transgresses the approved, upper-class style of pink femininity and provokes shaming comments from strangers. Programs such as Reach to Recovery and Look Good, Feel Better inform breast cancer patients of this cultural standard and help them conform to it. This standard is not universally adhered to in every detail. Ehrenreich says that "[t]he question of wigs versus baldness...defines one of the few real disagreements in breast-cancer culture." Some women have avant garde aesthetic tastes: "One decorates her scalp with temporary tattoos of peace signs, panthers, and frogs; another expresses herself with a shocking purple wig; a third reports that unadorned baldness makes her feel 'sensual, powerful, able to recreate myself with every new day'". Regardless of whether the transformation is towards a radical, natural or cosmetically enhanced appearance, treatment is always "a makeover opportunity".
Since the beginning of the 21st century, breast cancer culture has become more sexualized, and many awareness campaigns now reflect the old advertising truism that sex sells. The "booby campaigns", such as "Save the Tatas" and the "I ♥ Boobies" gel bracelets, rely on a cultural obsession with breasts and a market that is already highly aware of breast cancer. This message trivializes women and reflects a belief that breast cancer is important because cancer and its treatment makes women feel less sexually desirable and interferes with men's sexual access to women's breasts, instead of because cancer and its treatment kill and disable women. These sexualized campaigns tend to attract a younger audience than traditional campaigns.
At the same time, breast cancer culture tends to overlook men with breast cancer and women who do not fit the white, middle-class archetype. African-Americans involved with breast cancer organizations often feel like their role is to be the token minority.
The primary purposes or goals of the breast cancer culture itself are to maintain breast cancer's dominance as the preëminent women's health issue, to promote the appearance that society is "doing something" effective about breast cancer, and to sustain and expand the social, political, and financial power of breast cancer activists.
The breast cancer culture tells women with breast cancer that their participation in fundraising, social support of other women with breast cancer, and appearance at public events are critical activities that promote their own emotional recovery. Because of this message, some women begin to believe that refusing to raise money for breast cancer organizations or to become mentors for newly diagnosed women with breast cancer is an unhealthy response to breast cancer. Read More