Breast Cancer Movement

Health Social Movement (HSM): a social movement organized around health-related issues. HSMs may be subdivided into three categories: (1) health access movements seek equitable access to health care and improved provision of services; (2) constituencybased health movements address health inequality and inequity based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and/or sexuality differences; and (3) embodied health movements address disease, disability, or illness experiences by challenging science.

— Phil Brown, Stephen Zavestoski, Sabrina McCormick, Brian Mayer, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Rebecca Gasior Altman, Sociology of Heath & Illness


Different groups within the contemporary breast cancer movement may be classified in terms of their focus on health access, constituency-base, or perspectives on science. However, the roots of the breast cancer movement lie in the women’s, patients’, and consumers’ rights movements of the 1970s. Women activists set a new agenda for patients’ rights centered on patient empowerment, information sharing, and the idea that lay people could learn medical knowledge. Individuals and groups started to question medical authority, demand information about medical procedures, and insist that patients should take a more central role medical decision-making.

Organizing took a more political tone in the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Public dialogue and local organizing had already fueled the expansion of assistance programs and organizations. As breast cancer survivors formalized networks, they worked further to influence public policy and medical practice, and to institutionalize funding streams for research and support systems.

What transpired was a vibrant and successful health social movement committed to de-stigmatizing breast cancer, increasing awareness, promoting informed decision-making, distributing accurate and accessible information, providing emotional and practical support, challenging medical authority, and exposing medical practices to public scrutiny.

Once breast cancer was out in the open, the trajectory started to shift.

By the early 1990s, changes in public policy, heightened media exposure, and the increased presence and visibility of resources and support groups elevated breast cancer’s social status. Now with a high level of social importance, the movement had more clout. A “culture of survivorship” developed around optimism, personal empowerment, and the “survivor” as a new category of identity. Empowering at first, local organizing and group dynamics incorporated into this overarching ethos.

As the cause grew in popularity, the principles, strategies, and accomplishments of the breast cancer movement developed into a dynamic and highly public dimension of American culture. Despite ongoing resistance from within the movement, mass dissemination of a new “pink ribbon culture” diluted and homogenized breast cancer advocacy. Key organizations became institutionalized into a broader cancer establishment.

The pink formation of Komen for the Cure’s trademarked pink ribbon (below) illustrates the merging of advocacy and industry as pink ribbon culture came to rely more intensely on mass publicity, fundraising, and corporate influence.

Image Source: http://www.bradley.edu/about/news/article.dot?id=131073


Profile: Rose Kushner

Rose Kushner started the Women’s Breast Cancer Advisory Center – now the “Rose Kushner Breast Cancer Advisory Center” – after she discovered her own breast cancer in 1974. A year later, the first of four books was published “Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report.” “Why Me?” followed in 1982, and “Alternatives: New Developments in the War Against Breast Cancer” in 1985. “If You’ve Thought About Breast Cancer,” a series she started in 1979, is in its ninth edition.

Many modern breast cancer activists followed Kushner’s feminist strategies. They work within a professionalized advocacy movement that relies on evidence-based medicine and active patient involvement. Other advocates have not, creating a split in the breast cancer movement around intensive lobbying, commercial interests, and medicalization.


Here are a few spotlights of advocacy groups that hold critical perspectives about breast cancer, health, and the role of modern medicine.


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