Sunday, November 14, 2010

Girls and Breast Cancer

I was confused by the essay "Think About Pink" by Peggy Orenstein in today's New York Times Magazine. Primarily I read it as a missed opportunity to discuss real research and present actionable information. For instance, why did she include no discussion of steps that girls and young women can take to reduce their future risk of breast cancer? Beyond the dubious self exam and age-inappropriate mammogram, there are behaviors moms (and dads) can both model and encourage in their daughters. The best documented: building a lifelong habit of physical activity. Research shows
...breast cancer risk is directly related to the total number of ovulatory cycles a woman experiences during her lifetime and anything that can reduce the number of ovulatory cycles may decrease a woman's risk for breast cancer...(in one retrospective study) the number of hours a woman was physically active per week from (the time) when she started menstruation until one year before a breast cancer diagnosis was strongly linked to reduced breast cancer risk even when controlling for other factors. (Zero Breast Cancer)
Zero Breast Cancer is part of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Center collaborative that has been gathering large scale epidemiological data for more than seven years. Its public awareness messages focus on young women in a respectful, non titillating manner. Its helpful publications include this "Top 12 Breast Cancer and Environment Messages for Teens." 

Something else puzzles me. I have worked with, played with, interviewed and marveled at women with breast cancer for more than 10 years. Despite being well schooled in its literature I rarely encounter the interpretation of cancer as "an assault on...femininity." But if it's true, as Orenstein wrote that "today's festishizing of breasts comes at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them" then I would welcome some information about how we might address this injustice at its root. After all, our culture doesn't fetishize only diseased breasts. Have we given up on teaching young women to identify their femininity in a more holistic fashion? Are there additional ways we could stop colluding in a misogynist message that "breasts are the fundamental, defining aspect of femininity?"

I've blogged about this before; I'm no fan of Pink October. I agree with Orenstein that a popular culture focus on what she calls "sexy cancer" suppresses discussions of real cancer. But it's difficult to reframe the public discourse without actionable information. Identifying and validating breast cancer prevention strategies is difficult and -- yep, underfunded. Real cancer does suck, as Orenstein's informant said, and as activist advocates Breast Cancer Action have said all along.

No comments: