The Rebel Girl: Breast Cancer — No Accident?

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Catherine Sameh

“WOMEN DO THIS every day.” –Lillian Allen

Barbara Kruger, political artist and activist, created a work that the abortion rights movement has taken as its motto. Across a woman’s face are the words, “Your Body is a Battle Ground,” all in stark black, white and red colors.

These words run through my head as I climb into the shower and grab the soap, determined to do my monthly breast self-exam that has lately become more of a quarterly ritual.

It’s not that I’m afraid of finding a lump. I’m young, healthy, with no family history of breast cancer. It’s more that I resent having one more thing to be on guard about, one more reason to be ever-vigilant, disciplined, self-controlled. That if I find a lump, and I could be the one in eight women who does, my body is no longer mine. A battle ground containing me and my enemy.

But really the most maddening and frightening thing about it is that were I to get breast cancer, neither I nor anyone else would really know why.

Breast cancer has reached epidemic proportions, with one in every eight women falling victim. Most breast cancer activists agree that even this statistic is conservative, with one activist pushing it up to one in three.

The good news is that, after thousands of deaths every year from this disease, a movement of survivors, professionals, feminists and women’s health activists has come into its own. Demanding more money for research, activists have brought attention to how little is known about breast cancer in the face of its overwhelming impact on the lives of women.

Drawing on lessons from those in the AIDS movement, activists have made breast cancer a political issue. Yet as in all movements, the pressure to tone down demands and move away from systemic analysis is ever-looming.

As Sharon Batt points out in her book Patients No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer, while the movement grows, fostering different visions and voices, so too are debates about its direction and demands. Already, she says, tensions exist between grassroots activists and those immersed in the “cancer industry.”

While most health care and social work professionals are focused on treatment and quality of life, more and more women who have experienced breast cancer at first hand are asking the harder questions: what do toxins in the environment, diet, stress and social and economic background have to do with increased breast cancer rates?

The use of research monies, the composition and accountability of research committees, and the underlying assumptions that guide research on breast cancer should be critically examined and debated, as grassroots activists push the movement beyond a band-aid approach. I am not the first to say that, again, women’s lives and bodies are on the line.

ATC 55, March-April 1995