Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month I thought I’d write up some comments on James S. Olson’s Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History. This book is deeply personal for the author, who lost a portion of his arm to cancer while researching and writing. His sweeping narrative is filled with the individual stories of famous women throughout history that have battled breast cancer. While Olson firmly places his story in the wider history of medicine, his is ultimately a feminist reading. Throughout time, women have battled internally with the many decisions that come with a cancer diagnosis. Often, they also had to fight against men in the medical establishment and their personal lives to receive the treatment they wanted. Finally, in the 1990s, activists made it okay to talk openly about breast cancer and the medical establishment began tailoring treatment to the individual concerns of patients. Olson ends on a triumphant note, concluding that a battle has been won in the war to cure cancer.
This October marks thirteen years of my own mother’s survival of breast cancer. An OBGYN registered nurse, she has dedicated her career to women’s health and wellness. Because of her own education and the timing of her diagnosis, hers was a journey defined by personal choice. Her experience taught me to always know that my body is mine. When I decided to have genetic testing done, my mother being positive for a mutation known to cause breast cancer, I had to consult my general practitioner for insurance purposes. In that brief, single visit, I experienced the feelings of shame, doubt, and fear that cancer patients must endure for months or years. The male doctor spent the entire visit implying that it would be a horrible mistake for me to have a mastectomy if I had the mutation because I was young, unmarried, and childless. Thankfully my test came back negative, but the whole ordeal empowered me to always assert my wants and needs in any medical situation. After reading Olson’s history I now know that my ability to choose is made easier by the millions of women who have fought against one of the oldest known human diseases.
In today’s world it seems a new list of carcinogens or preventives appears every day. Often, the same items appear on both lists. In addition, the medical profession continues to produce studies that change the guidelines and recommendations for testing and treatment. It’s no wonder cancer diagnosis is so frightening and bewildering. Olson’s research shows that this is not a purely modern phenomenon, that this disease has occurred throughout human history, and that people from all walks of life deal with it in different ways.