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NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002) 215-219



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Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic edited by Anne S. Kasper and Susan J. Ferguson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 388 pp., $27.95 hardcover.
Manmade Breast Cancers by Zillah Eisenstein. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001, 186 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $17.95 paper.
The Personal and the Political: Women's Activism in Response to the Breast Cancer and AIDS Epidemics by Ulrike Boehmer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000, 203 pp., $18.95 paper.

At the opening of the twenty-first century, medical care in the United States is a mixture of mind-boggling, life-saving, and expensive technology . . . and medical payment systems requiring rigid caps on costs; demands that treatments be guided by rigorous scientific evidence. . . and political and financial limitations in government support for obtaining that evidence; attention to diseases with media-savvy spokespersons . . . and neglect of the health concerns of those without a voice; a knowledge explosion so huge that no person can hope to master more than a specialized portion . . . and an increased need for the thoughtful integration [End Page 215] of biology, medicine, psychology, sociology, economics, and business to address the complexities of health and illness in the modern world.

Social changes in the latter half of the twentieth century, including the resurgence of feminism, participation of more women in the scientific community, medical consumer activism, and a greater emphasis on patients' rights, have led to an increased and highly desirable concern for the health issues of women. Breast cancer, which affects women disproportionately but not exclusively, is one of these issues.

Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic is a collection of essays addressing three areas pertinent to the social construction of the cancer: the historical context of its diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer as a social problem, and breast cancer and social change. The editors' explicit purpose is to elucidate "the ways society shapes what we know about breast cancer" (v). An implicit purpose seems to be the examination of a question that Susan Love raises in her introduction. Now that breast cancer has achieved importance on the national health care agenda, she asks, will so "many companies, organizations, researchers, and universities depending on the breast cancer dollar" mean that society cannot "afford" to cure breast cancer (xii)? Although some of the authors appear to believe that dependence on the breast cancer dollar is so entrenched that finding a cure will be unprofitable, therefore unlikely, I agree with Love's conclusion. Medicine does evolve for the better, albeit more slowly than many of us would like. The iron lung industry disappeared with the advent of the polio vaccine. Thanks to the development of potent antiviral agents, medicine's focus has moved from the consideration of HIV/AIDS as a uniformly, fatal, "gay plague" to a treatable chronic disease. And breast cancer treatment has moved away from the disfiguring radical mastectomy to early detection allowing for less-invasive surgery. Early detection and less-invasive surgery are products of a technologically sophisticated century; the application of technological sophistication to breast cancer is a product of changes in societal expectations.

Contributor Barron Lerner explores the history of breast cancer from ancient Egypt to the present, demonstrating "how conceptualizations of disease are intimately influenced by those who define or describe such entities" (28). He emphasizes how patients and medical skeptics influence treatment changes; how improvements in breast cancer care have come about not only because of feminism and consumerism, but also because of carefully constructed scientific studies. He introduces a common, important theme: the focus on expensive detection and curative measures and the lack of causal research. He concludes that biomedical scientists, patients, and policy-makers all must learn to appreciate the social construction of disease in order to "reach more rational clinical decisions . . . and develop more equitable, cost-effective screening and treatment recommendations" (46). [End Page 216]

Susan Ferguson extends the argument first proposed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2151-7371
Print ISSN
2151-7363
Pages
pp. 215-219
Launched on MUSE
2003-01-17
Open Access
No
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