The Origins Of Breast Cancer Activism

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Breast Cancer Awareness month comes every October, and the display of pink ribbons is hard to miss. The lack of choices and autonomy for women was particularly evident with issues like childbirth, sterilization, and abortion, but it also applied to breast cancer. One of the first women to protest this standard of care was journalist Rose Kushner, who discovered she had a breast lump in 1974, at the age of 45. Kushner insisted on a diagnostic biopsy followed by a modified mastectomy. “No man is going to make another impotent while he’s asleep without his permission, but there’s no hesitation if it’s a woman’s breast,” Kushner pointed out, echoing the reigning feminist position on sexist double standards in medicine.

Kushner’s ideas were initially rejected by cancer experts – one called her book a “Piece of garbage” – but over time they became common practice, as research proved that women with the early-stage disease could safely conserve more of their breast tissue. Several prominent women followed Kushner’s lead in speaking out about breast cancer during the decade. As a result, millions of women examined themselves and scheduled screenings with their doctors, which led to a spike in reported incidents of breast cancer known as the “Betty Ford blip.” One such woman was Happy Rockefeller, wife of Vice President-designate Nelson Rockefeller, who discovered her own malignant lump just two weeks later.

As TIME explained, Ford and Rockefeller’s candidness helped many others confront “a little-understood disease that was once discussed only in whispers.” Other notable women who came forward about their experiences with breast cancer in the 1970s included writer Babette Rosmond, actor Shirley Temple Black, chef Julia Child and NBC news correspondent Betty Rollin. Their use of symbolism, in the form of a red ribbon, and their demands for increased federal funding influenced the next wave of breast cancer activism. The pink ribbon became a symbol of breast cancer awareness as the result of efforts by Self Magazine, the cosmetics industry and the Susan G. Komen foundation in the early 1990s.

The first pink ribbons were handed out at the 1991 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in New York City, the same year that saw the founding of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Today, activists are pivoting their focus from awareness and early detection towards saving the lives of patients who have progressed to advanced stage IV disease, or metastatic breast cancer. Breast cancer activism has evolved from individual patients voicing their own experiences, to the formation of community support groups for cancer survivors, to political organizing for a cure. Critics point out that, along with the way, the struggle against breast cancer has been exploited by companies co-opting the pink ribbon to advertise their own products or bolster their image.

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