Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus has breast cancer, she announced through social media Thursday
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced on Twitter Thursday that she has breast cancer, she received an outpouring of support. In less than a day, her tweet received more than 300,00 likes. But there was a time not so long ago that such a public admission — and the swift praise of her bravery — were not a given.
“I remember in the ’80s when I couldn’t say the word ‘breast’ in a public meeting,” said breast cancer specialist Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “If there were men in the audience, I had to say ‘mammary gland.'”
Women with breast cancer faced debilitating stigmas in accessing treatment, in receiving sensitive care from their surgeons, and in being seen as whole women if their breasts were removed.
“People shunned you,” said Andrea Rader, spokeswoman for Susan G. Komen, a leading breast cancer organization.
How, then, did breast cancer go from hushed whisper to neon pink rallying cry?
Part of the reason for its visibility lies in the same reason it was stigmatized: breasts. Unlike cancer of the pancreas or the lung or the liver, breast cancer attacks a conspicuous organ imbued with deep cultural meeting. A woman’s breasts aren’t just visible, they’re symbolic.
Breasts were “a metaphor for not only sexuality but for nurturing. And they still are,” said Janet Osuch, founder of Michigan State University’s Comprehensive Breast Health Clinic and co-author of “A Historical Perspective on Breast Cancer Activism in the United States.”
Cultural shifts in the last century — including feminism and social media — have transformed the fight against breast cancer from an individual struggle into a collective cause.
“It affects people we just really love,” Rader said of why the national movement has grown so much. “Our moms and our daughters. Our grandmothers and our sisters. And in some cases our dads.”
In honor of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we look at some of the big moments that took breast cancer out of the dark and into the pink.
1952: It starts with an ordinary woman
“The very first true activist, not a fundraiser, but someone who bumped against the system, was Terese Lasser,” Osuch said. Lasser was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy, which was standard at the time. What Lasser took issue with was not the procedure, but what she saw as her surgeon’s indifference. She had questions about sex, about what to tell her kids. “I think she was the very first of the activists who was brave enough to question the doctors,” Osuch said. Lasser formed the Reach to Recovery program to help women cope with breast cancer. It’s now part of the American Cancer Society.
1970s AND ’80s
Before Title IX — the 1972 law which outlaws sex discrimination in education — few women were doctors. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that new enrollment in medical school in 2016 was evenly divided between women (49.8%) and men (50.2%).
“That law not only made a huge difference for women in medical schools but also for women in law schools. The women in law schools became policymakers and the women who went to medical school took a great interest in women’s health,” Osuch said.
Betty Ford comes out with breast cancer
In 1974, former first lady Betty Ford told the country she had breast cancer. Norton called the move “revolutionary.” Public figures then didn’t talk openly about the disease, but Ford made it a part of the national conversation.
“She was brave enough to make it public,” Osuch said. “I think things might have remained silent for a much longer time had that not happened.”
Medical journalist Ruth Kushner was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974, and afterward became the “first nationally known breast cancer advocate,” writes Ellen Leopold in A Darker Ribbon: A Twentieth-Century Story of Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors. Kushner questioned if radical mastectomies were always a woman’s best treatment option, and wrote prolifically about women advocating for better care.
Susan G. Komen
In 1982, Nancy Brinker founded Susan G. Komen in honor of her sister Suzy, who died of breast cancer at 36. Its inception, Osuch said, marked “the very first time that there had ever been targeted funds raised for breast cancer research.” The organization says it has funded more than $920 million in cancer research.
‘The New York Times Magazine’ cover
On August 15, 1993, The New York Times Magazine featured an image of a woman with a mastectomy-scarred chest. The headline read, “You Can’t Look Away Anymore.” Susan Ferraro’s story on the politics of breast cancer proved the issue had gone mainstream.
Women in Congress
With the election of Bill Clinton (whose mother would die of breast cancer in 1994), Americans elected more new women to Congress than ever before. Women like former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), whose mother died of breast cancer and who headed the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, took up the breast cancer cause.
The Internet created a robust community for women with breast cancer that not only provided support, but access to information. A 2008 study in the Journal of Public Health found women with breast cancer use the Internet to help facilitate conversations with their doctors.
“I remember when there was no Internet,” Rader said. “I can’t imagine what it was like to have breast cancer and not be able to talk to somebody about it.”
A nation goes pink
Susan G. Komen says it has used the color pink since its inception. In 1991, the organization distributed pink ribbons to 2,500 participants of the Komen Greater New York City Race for the Cure. The next year Self magazine created a pink ribbon to honor its second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and sold it at stores across NYC. Now each October the ribbons — and the color — are seen on everyone from NFL players to airline attendants.
2000s AND 2010s
The color is not without controversy. People who support the marketing campaigns say they raise much-needed funds. Critics say “pinkwashing” makes people feel good but enables some companies with pink ribbon promotions to exploit the disease for profit — and they argue it’s not doing enough to save lives. The group Think Before You Pink, which launched in 2002, says consumers need to be discerning about where they put their money.
Guys get in on it
As breast cancer awareness continued to garner national attention, professional sports teams got on board. Since 2006, Major League Baseball has used pink Louisville Sluggers on Mother’s Day, which it auctions to raise funds to fight the disease. In 2009, the NFL launched its “A Crucial Catch” campaign with the American Cancer Society to help raise awareness. Each October, players, coaches and refs wear pink game apparel and feature special game balls that are also auctioned to raise funds.
The Angelina Jolie effect
In May 2013, Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the The New York Times in which she disclosed that she had chosen to get a prophylactic double mastectomy to reduce her high risk of developing fatal breast cancer. She was applauded by cancer experts who say the actor, filmmaker and humanitarian switched a spotlight on the disease that few other Americans could provide. A 2016 study in the British Medical Journal found Jolie’s revelation resulted in an uptick in cancer screenings.
In August 2013, Tig Notaro walked onstage at the Largo in Los Angeles and said to her audience: “I have cancer. How are you?” What followed was a 30-minute set that became legend in comedy and cancer circles. In her 2015 HBO special Boyish Girl Interrupted, Notaro took off her shirt and completed her set baring her double mastectomy scars.
New nipples or a tattoo?
While many social stigmas around breast cancer have abated, mastectomy scars remain an obstacle for survivors. Many women who aren’t interested in reconstruction have turned to ink to heal. Tattoos after mastectomies are a major trend, and with the rise of social media, many survivors are sharing empowering images of how they’ve remade their bodies after cancer to feel whole once again. There’s even an organization P.ink, or Personal Ink, that connects breast cancer survivors who want mastectomy tattoos with skilled artists.
In the United States, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, no matter your race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s no longer a disease women suffer in silence.
Women moved breast cancer to the fore of the national conversation, Osuch said, because after decades of being told what to do with their bodies, women were finally “emboldened” enough to take control of them.
To continue to make progress in the fight against breast cancer, Osuch said, individual women must remember “to pay real close attention to their breasts. To not hide them. To care about them.”
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