Breast Cancer as a Feminist Issue

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

OCTOBER 10, 2018

Tell us: Do you have "#metoo" feelings about cancer?

I had thought that the passion about breast cancer as a feminist issue had subsided. I had thought that the passion about many experiences being framed as feminist issues had subsided, but then came the #metoo movement and our current political landscape, and everything again seems to be inflamed. Whether you think this is good or bad is up to you, but the times are again loudly and clearly insisting that we consider the question.

Specifically, I remember the angry talks and articles suggesting that breast cancer would surely have been cured by now if it were a men's' disease. This was sometimes accompanied by an equally strong conviction that a cure does exist, but that the worlds of Pharma and Medicine were colluding to keep it quiet, so they can continue to make money. I promise you this is not the truth! Some also expressed their outrage at the primitive available treatments, using Dr. Susan Love's famous trilogy of "Slash, Burn and Poison" to describe surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. All of us hope that a century or so from now (and, hopefully, much sooner), cancer will have been tamed, and, if any treatments are still necessary, that they will be gentler. Using such fierce language to describe our current tools just seems inflammatory and scary.

Most certainly, we all wish (how I wish!) that we had both a prevention and a cure for breast cancer. We don't. Over the decades of my career, however, I have witnessed enormous progress in treatment and a slow but steady decline in mortality from this disease. I know there has been huge improvement in treating side effects from chemotherapy and radiation. I remember when we routinely gave our patients little plastic buckets as they left the treatment area, knowing they would be vomiting before they reached home. Most people undergoing chemotherapy now never vomit (and, yes, I have had chemo twice and certainly felt rotten for too many days, but never needed the little bucket).

Curing cancer turns out to be an incredibly difficult problem, and we are fortunate that so many smart women and men are spending their lives in labs and in clinics trying to understand and solve the puzzles. It pains me to read the periodic headlines announcing "Cure Found for Cancer." Hopes are raised, then dashed again as more information and experience become available. The reality is that progress is made in tiny little steps, each building on what has come before. All of us stand on the shoulders of all the men and women who have participated in clinical trials and made possible the progress that we have made.

Let us remember that men can and do get breast cancer; in the US, approximately 2,100 men a year are diagnosed, and 410 will die. The mortality rate for men is higher than it is for women because the cancer is often diagnosed later as breast cancer is just not on men’s radar screens in the same way. Through the years, I have worked with a number of men who had breast cancer, and they were all shocked by the diagnosis. They were not just shocked to have cancer, but had not known that this particular variety was possible for men. I painfully remember one man who sadly described how some people had reacted with disbelief and even mockery when he shared his diagnosis. Let us remember, too, that many men love women who have been diagnosed with this disease. I am certain all of them would do anything to support and find a cure.

There is plenty to be angry about. Nothing will be good enough until everyone diagnosed with cancer can be promised a cure. Even better, maybe someday we will know how to prevent cancer. In the meantime, let us support one another with kindness and empathy.

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