How perceptions of breast cancer and its treatment have evolved over the centuries, particularly since the advent of the women’s movement.
In what he calls “self-administered psychotherapy” following the loss of his left arm to an epithelial sarcoma, Olson (History/Sam Houston State Univ.) immersed himself in the study of breast cancer’s history. Not only is there a rich body of literature by prominent victims, but the gender dynamics of the disease—invariably female patients treated by generally male doctors—provide a fascinating view of the ways in which culture, politics, and science interact. Stories of individual women’s battles with cancer, ranging from Persian Queen Atossa in the fifth century b.c.<\H> to American scientist Jerri Nielson in 20th-century Antarctica, provide a dramatic introduction. Olson then details how views of the disease have altered since the time of Hippocrates, who believed its cause was an excess of black bile in the body, and how treatments have evolved partly as a result of scientific advances and partly through cultural changes. While pre-anesthesia mastectomies seem downright barbaric, the widespread performance in the 1950s of mutilating and debilitating super-radical mastectomies followed by further surgery to remove the ovaries, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands, is no less repulsive. Today, Olson reports, such treatments have been supplanted by far less drastic surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. He recounts how the women’s movement, the pop-culture obsession with breasts, the willingness of some physicians to test alternatives to radical mastectomy, and the development of mammography permitting earlier diagnosis have changed the options available to women with breast cancer. He describes how activists have moved from providing emotional support to breast cancer patients to challenging the medical establishment and lobbying the government for research money and legislative changes affecting insurance coverage. Its stigma disappearing, breast cancer has now moved onto book and magazine covers and into sitcoms.
A lucid account of an ongoing war on a changing battlefield with at least the hope of new weapons.