Making Cancer Sexy

Attention, teenage boys: The cover of the Feb. 18, 2002 issue of Time magazine features a naked, airbrushed, very thin woman with blond hair, shown from the waist up, standing sideways, covering her breasts with one arm while the other is awkwardly bent upward. She is staring off into space with a completely disengaged expression, like a mannequin, or a blow-up doll.

Page three, the table of contents page, shows her again, this time facing forward, arms bent in front of her, head thrown back in ecstasy, eyes closed. She is back on page 51, in the same shot, but this time we see more of her torso, right down to her pubic bone.

Oh. She's there to tell you about The New Thinking on Breast Cancer.

Breast cancer is a terrible disease. It is the most frequently diagnosed non-skin cancer among women in the United States, second only to lung in cancer fatalities. It has those of us on the distaff side nervously kneading ourselves in the shower once a month, having our breasts flattened and crushed in mammogram machinery while our fingers are crossed, and wearing pink ribbons on our lapels. Early detection has done much to lower the mortality rate of this disease, and we owe that to public awareness.

But you might not know that more women die of lung cancer than breast cancer (although a woman can't fondle her naked lung on the cover of Time). And, more women -- more people -- die of heart disease than of all forms of cancer combined. In fact, the top three leading causes of death in 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics:

1. Heart disease -- 30.3%
2. All forms of cancer combined -- 23%
3. Stroke -- 7%

Much of the press coverage of heart disease focuses on diet tips. But then, heart disease isn't "sexy."

Breast cancer coverage, whether in the press or in well-meaning TV movies, is obviously aimed at women. Lifetime touts itself as "Television for Women"; you won't find a newscast, but Designing Women and The Golden Girls air in perpetuity. It's a land where Judith Light, Valerie Bertinelli and Nancy McKeon get battered by Gregory Harrison, starve themselves, fall fatally ill, fight for their children and wear sweatshirts and no makeup. Breast cancer is a popular Lifetime movie disease. Movies about this disease always touch on the "Will I still be attractive to my husband?" aspect. And it is a sad fact that a woman who has to lose this part of her body does indeed have to confront issues of sexuality and body image -- not the case after a woman loses a lung or has a heart attack.

Is this why we'll never see a Lifetime movie about a woman with heart disease? Is it why we'll never see Jill Eikenberry struggle with a low cholesterol diet ("Damn it! I can't stop eating bacon. It's who I AM!") while Michael Tucker promises to stay with her even if she loses interest in sex as a side effect of her blood pressure medication? Because the struggle with heart disease doesn't seem noble or feminine enough? Because it can't be trivialized and reduced to sexual terms? Because it doesn't require actresses to be filmed examining their naked selves in the mirror?

Then there's the age of the woman on the cover of Time. She's clearly in her 20s. And yes, women in their 20s can get breast cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute, a woman's chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is one out of 257 from age 30 to 40; one out of 67 from age 40 to 50; one out of 36 from age 50 to 60; one out of 28 from age 60 to 70; and one out of 24 from age 70 to 80. But you don't see a 70-year-old woman fondling herself with her head thrown back on the cover of Time.

And let's not forget gender. Prostate cancer has the highest incidence rate among men, and it gets a lot of attention from the media too. Would Time feature a young, buff, naked guy cupping his "family jewels" as he looks thoughtfully into the distance on the cover for that story? No, the editors would no doubt go with the hangdog-yet-resolute face of either Joe Torre or Rudy Giuliani.

Young naked women are used to sell things to men and women alike. And the argument could be made that if a naked woman on the cover of Time gets you to read about breast cancer, then it's done its job. Maybe any coverage is good coverage, if it can save lives. But as the mainstream media keeps the focus on young healthy naked breasts and how they identify and feminize women, one can't help but wonder if breast cancer gets so much coverage because of the first word in the disease, not the second.

Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City. She contributes to HoleCity, Modern Humorist and Flak Magazine.

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