Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sexualizing Breast Cancer

A few years ago, on TV there was a teaser for a sitcom. The scene involved a teenage boy and girl in an embrace, while a knuckleheaded parent walked in on them.The teenage boy's pathetic defense for being caught with his girlfriend was an "innocent" blurt-out, "I'm just giving her a breast exam!"

The underlying implication was, of course, that he was checking her out for breast cancer while, well, checking her out. The writers must've thought that line was hysterical, and the audience's laughter (or laugh track) seemed to drive that point home.

Except breast cancer is not funny. Ever.

Just ask those who have witnessed the suffering of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and friends; men who have seen their significant others and other women in their life die of this disease. Ask the children who are now motherless. Ask the 200,000 or so women who get diagnosed per year in this country if breast cancer is a joke.

Of course, you can't ask 40,000 of them each year because they are dead. 

Yet some organizations, TV shows, and obnoxious media personalities find it acceptable to sexualize this disease because its place of origin is in one or both breasts.  And sexualizing this disease demeans women, and in sexualizing this disease, the guilty demean themselves.

No one makes jokes about oogling one's ovaries or undressing one's uterus, but when it comes to breast cancer, it seems the sexualizing is a free-for-all. We live in a breast-obsessed landscape, folks, and I don't like the scenery.

Oh, and let's please not forget the men -- the one out of every 100 -- who get breast cancer. Our society marginalizes them. We have tons of support groups for women, but very few, if any, for men. I was part of a support group who was "supportive" to each other -- until a man who had breast cancer dared join the group. The women (not me, thankfully, although I am guilty by association) banned together to oust him from the group because he wasn't a woman and supposedly it's not the same thing for a man as it is for a woman.

No, it's not. The affected men get to have breast cancer without society's support and without awareness campaigns. Women have to put up with breast jokes and awareness campaigns.

Neither sex benefits as much as it could from research dollars.

And that is a shame.

Readers, please feel free to weigh in on the sexualization of breast cancer or on men with breast cancer. Any personal experiences you wish to share?

This posting is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Calling the Shots: Coaching Your Way Through the Medical System. To obtain these excerpts regularly, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the orange subscribe button. I am a professional writer and have published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. I can be contacted at and Photobucket


  1. Thanks for posting this. As you probably know, this is hot button topic for me this week!

    There is no correlation between these organizations and the true experience of breast cancer. I am so sickened by the way the real stories of women with cancer get marginalized.

    Thank you,

  2. This is often the heart of the "hurt" in this disease. It often feels like an attack on one's sexuality and therefore personality. In my encounters, it is the first thing I confront when trying to walk through the "healing" process. There is no other disease that models this pain and insult.

  3. Katie,

    I know that you have had experience with a very insensitive organization, and that this, indeed, has been a hot button for you. It's also a hot button for me, and all I can say is in reading your postings, all I could feel was outrage at the insensitivity to breast cancer.

    Let's face it: cancer stinks and is not a light, happy walk in the park, as certain organizations would have one believe.

    Thank you for reading my posting and commenting.

  4. Lois,

    Thank you for your insightful comment.

    Yes, breast cancer is unique in the hurt it causes its victims. You are right that no other disease quite has this societal effect and hurt of sexualization.

    It's really horrible. When I saw that teaser for that TV show, which thankfully bit the dust rather quickly, I felt hurt and insulted.

  5. Thank you for this post Beth. What amazes me is that many of these organizations are founded by women who have been through breast cancer themselves. I don't understand how they cannot have empathy for the view that what they are doing is insensitive, hurtful and marginalizing on so many levels. Let alone the fact, that invariably the dollars that are being raised are not actually doing anything to move the fight to eradicate this disease any further. Believe me I have no doubt that these organizations were started with good intentions, but surely when you operate in the non-profit sector, part of your development as an organization must involve a level of self-analysis to understand whether you are doing right by your donors, and most importantly the cause you are serving. And has the organization even correctly articulated the "cause"? If not, then the message/mission has to change. I also wonder what is different to my experience to their experience that could put us on such opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, diagnosis stage aside? Has our society become this vapid?

  6. Anna,

    Thank you for your comprehensive, insightful comment. Yes, it surely amazes me that women are the founders of such organizations. Perhaps they are brainwashed by the societal frenzy and misguided notion that fighting cancer is nobel and heroic. Maybe they are in denial?

    Someone I once knew and had a good relationship with had a sister who died of breast cancer. When I was diagnosed and going through treatments, she had no empathy from me and was downright cruel to me. Why is that? Luckily, she is no longer in my life.

    I can't imagine someone who have had cancer not being able to relate and/or empathize with someone others' cancer experience and to be utterly disrespectful and insensitive about others' breast cancer experiences. It simply boggles the mind.

    Everyone has a unique experience with breast cancer, but it's so important for fellow breast cancer patients/former patients to attempt to understand each other's point of view and support each other.

    Unfortunately, it doesn't always seem to work out that way, as evidenced by certain organizations.

  7. I'm continually amazed that these sexy breast cancer ads get by under the radar of serious advocacy. It's something we must address as a society if we really want to make a meaningful difference in dealing with this disease or any other. Oogle your ovaries? Jostle your balls? I can't imagine these being accepted "awareness" campaigns. Fun at the price of empathy, information, true awareness, and eradication? That's just not a price worth paying. Not in any ledger.

  8. Gayle,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I really don't think there's serious advocacy in our society. People aren't paying attention or they are in denial or they don't care. Why else do so many in the general public think it's OK to sex-ify breast cancer?

    I appreciate your insights.

  9. Beth, Wow, that was quite the hook there with your opening! It more or less sums it all up, doesn't it?

    Great post here, your passion comes through. I guess you probably know where I stand on this, right there with you.

  10. Thanks, Nancy, for your comment. Yes, this topic is really a hot button for me, as it is with so many of us in the breast cancer community.

  11. Beth, thank you for this post, which addresses a topic I've been following and acting on this past week. I have been so outraged by the various Boobie Brigades and their sexualizing breast cancer as part of their "awareness campaigns" that I created a Page on Facebook called Breast Cancer Isn't Cute.

    Thank you for continuing the effort to bring this problem further to light.

  12. MizGreenJeans:

    Thank you for leaving your thoughtful comment. All of these campaigns that sexualize breast cancer are completely out of line and inappropriate. And what's scary is that so many people go along with it.

    I'll check out your Facebook page.