The “C Word”
How the U.S. Fought Social Stigma Surrounding Breast Cancer
October 18, 2019
For those of us growing up in the United States since the implementation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (yep—that’s October) and the Pink Ribbon Campaign, it might be hard to believe that breast cancer was once viewed with as much stigma as substance use disorders are viewed today. In fact, the disease was ostracized so heavily that it was popularly referred to as the “C word,” driven by the same fear and revulsion that lead characters in the Harry Potter universe to shy away from uttering the name Voldemort. Today, most of us find that idea ridiculous: breast cancer is a disease, not a supervillain—but once upon a time, that type of fear and secrecy was the status quo.
Part of the shame behind breast cancer was rooted in sexism; although men can develop breast cancer, it is a disease that is overwhelmingly found in women. This is, of course, due to the fact that, in general, women tend to have far more breast tissue than men. Prior to the 1970s, when breast cancer activism began to take hold, this gender disparity ranked breast cancer as less important than other cancers. Between the early 1900s through the 1970s, women who were suspected of having breast cancer were typically given the singular option of no treatment, or having a double mastectomy, meaning the removal of both breasts. Sometimes, due to the lack of autonomy women possessed around their health and bodies, “no treatment” was not even an option; women who had not personally consented to the operation would wake up without breasts, even if the tumor had been small or only in one breast.
One of the first vocal breast cancer activists was journalist Rose Kushner. Her book Why Me? What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer To Save Her Life was initially met with ridicule, but would eventually become a pioneering text in the breast cancer reform movement. Another influential female voice in the breast cancer awareness movement was First Lady Betty Ford, who was famously open about her experience being diagnosed and treated with the disease, leading to a wave of awareness among women around the nation.
Today, breast cancer self-checks are widely encouraged for women of child bearing age, and instructions can be easily found online. Mammograms—medical breast cancer screenings—are recommended regularly for most women over the age of 50. And every October, various popular companies, such as cosmetics lines, don a pink ribbon on their products to raise breast cancer visibility. Races, drives, and other fundraisers take place to support breast cancer awareness and research. And, of course, people diagnosed with breast cancer are given a range of individualized care options, with the ultimate choice in care being up to the patient herself.
Of course, this is the status of breast cancer in the United States. In some countries, breast cancer is still regarded as a shameful women’s disease, or misunderstood as something that can only be detected and treated in wealthy women’s bodies. This is why continuing to support breast cancer awareness is crucial—and why “Pink Ribbon” month remains a vital feminist movement today.
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