International Feminist Critiques of Breast Cancer Culture

BCC partners Grazia de Michele and Ana Porroche Escudero participated in an influential public event on breast cancer this past October held at Marienea, Basauri’s Women’s Association in Bilbao, Spain. The event was sponsored by the Women’s Institute of the Basque Country (Emakunde-Emakumearen Euskal Erakundea), the premier group responsible for promoting, advising, and assessing gender equality in the Basque Country.

GraziaGrazia de Michele spoke about how her breast cancer diagnosis five years ago at age 30 informed her awareness of cancer and environmental risk factors.

A historian trained in tracing the origins of social and personal conditions, Grazia de Michele was not satisfied when her doctors could not tell her why 70 percent of people diagnosed with breast cancer have none of the commonly agreed upon risk factors (such as close family history, older age, genetic mutations, or certain lifestyle behaviors). Instead of analyzing the intermingling trends of the rise of cancer incidence with the increasingly toxic environmental conditions of the post-industrial era, the cancer paradigm of the 1980s and beyond became focused on personal experiences. In staying individually focused, Grazia believes that patients, physicians, advocates, policy-makers, and researchers alike fail to look at what’s circulating upstream, like DDT and other known toxic substances. “Only 5 percent of research is targeted toward environmental causation. That’s not enough,” she says, “and most people don’t even think about it.”

— From an interview with Grazia de Michele in the Basque newspaper, Berria.

AnaAna Porroche Escudero, a feminist medical anthropologist, shared how gender and power intersect in the world of breast cancer in ways that disempower women and stall progress against the disease.

Ana Porroche Escudero has spent years studying breast cancer with a critical eye. She’s found that while breast cancer awareness campaigns are the major strategy used to empower women about breast cancer, most campaigns use gendered fear mongering tactics that do the opposite. “If you love your children, get a mammogram” says one campaign. “Eat well and have a healthy life” says another, all aimed at persuading women to comply with overly simplified directives. The outmoded message that “the sooner it is detected the better” ignores the fact that there are several types of breast cancer that grow and spread very quickly regardless. “And I may eat healthy,” Ana says, “but what if there is no political will to regulate my food?” Awareness campaigns “should promote critical thinking not just positive thinking,” Ana continues, “to give power to the people” to make informed decisions and understand the real impacts of this disease and its aftereffects. The campaigns focus on a specific way of “being a woman” but they would be more effective “if they were authentic, realistic, and based on scientific evidence.”

— From an interview with Ana Porroche Escudero in the Basque newspaper, Berria.

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