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Ehrenreich: The Pink-Ribbon Breast Cancer Cult

What feminists don't need, no matter how many "races for the cure" they run, is a ladies’ auxiliary to the cancer-industrial complex.

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Look, the issue here isn’t health-care costs. If the current levels of screening mammography demonstrably saved lives, I would say go for it, and damn the expense. But the numbers are increasingly insistent: Routine mammographic screening of women under 50 does not reduce breast cancer mortality in that group, nor do older women necessarily need an annual mammogram. In fact, the whole dogma about “early detection” is shaky, as Susan Love reminds us:  the idea has been to catch cancers early, when they’re still small, but some tiny cancers are viciously aggressive, and some large ones aren’t going anywhere.

One response to the new guidelines has been that numbers don’t matter -- only individuals do -- and if just one life is saved, that’s good enough. So OK, let me cite my own individual experience. In 2000, at the age of 59, I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer on the basis of one dubious mammogram followed by a really bad one, followed by a biopsy.  Maybe I should be grateful that the cancer was detected in time, but the truth is, I’m not sure whether these mammograms detected the tumor or, along with many earlier ones, contributed to it: One known environmental cause of breast cancer is radiation, in amounts easily accumulated through regular mammography.

And why was I bothering with this mammogram in the first place? I had long ago made the decision not to spend my golden years undergoing cancer surveillance, but I wanted to get my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) prescription renewed, and the nurse practitioner wouldn’t do that without a fresh mammogram.

As for the HRT, I was taking it because I had been convinced, by the prevailing medical propaganda, that HRT helps prevent heart disease and Alzheimer’s. In 2002, we found out that HRT is itself a risk factor for breast cancer (as well as being ineffective at warding off heart disease and Alzheimer’s), but we didn’t know that in 2000. So did I get breast cancer because of the HRT -- and possibly because of the mammograms themselves -- or did HRT lead to the detection of a cancer I would have gotten anyway?

I don’t know, but I do know that that biopsy was followed by the worst six months of my life, spent bald and barfing my way through chemotherapy. This is what’s at stake here: Not only the possibility that some women may die because their cancers go undetected, but that many others will lose months or years of their lives to debilitating and possibly unnecessary treatments.

You don’t have to be suffering from “chemobrain” (chemotherapy-induced cognitive decline) to discern evil, iatrogenic, profit-driven forces at work here.  In a recent column on the new guidelines, patient-advocate Naomi Freundlich raises the possibility that “entrenched interests -- in screening, surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments associated with diagnosing more and more cancers -- are impeding scientific evidence.” I am particularly suspicious of the oncologists, who saw their incomes soar starting in the late 80s when they began administering and selling chemotherapy drugs themselves in their ghastly, pink-themed, “chemotherapy suites.” Mammograms recruit women into chemotherapy, and of course, the pink-ribbon cult recruits women into mammography.

What we really need is a new women’s health movement, one that’s sharp and skeptical enough to ask all the hard questions: What are the environmental (or possibly life-style) causes of the breast cancer epidemic? Why are existing treatments like chemotherapy so toxic and heavy-handed? And, if the old narrative of cancer’s progression from “early” to “late” stages no longer holds, what is the course of this disease (or diseases)? What we don’t need, no matter how pretty and pink, is a ladies’ auxiliary to the cancer-industrial complex.

 
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