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Abby Maxim

Dec. 8, 2016

ENGL 8520

Final Essay

Corporate America—Let’s Save Breasts, Forget About the Women


I came home to winter break in December 2015 to find almost immediately that

my aunt had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Beyond the initial shock—as

she was the first in my family I had actually known to be diagnosed—I felt a strange

sense of optimism. Strange, because when one speaks of cancer, it is generally

synonymous with the word “death.” While cancer survival rates have, of course, gone up

in recent decades due to increased knowledge and technology, it still remains one of, if

not the most, terrifying disease for one to be diagnosed. That strange sense of optimism

came from the fact that it was breast cancer, not, say, pancreatic cancer, which is

basically terminal from the moment of diagnosis. No, fortunately, my aunt had been

diagnosed with breast cancer. Though at that point in time we did not know how serious

it was or which stage she was in, optimism still prevailed over a sense of dread.

Some of this optimism came from the increased awareness that breast cancer’s

publicity brings. Decades ago, breast cancer was not something that was mentioned in

“polite society,” and women were even dissuaded from talking about their diagnosis with

family (Cobb 84). Now that breast cancer discourse has a place in the public eye, women
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have a much better chance of catching the disease early and thus surviving. When my

aunt was diagnosed, I had a lifetime of exposure to this media behind me. This optimism

is not a bad thing; it is a result of awareness that saves countless lives.

However, it can be said that we do not feel that same sense of optimism when

one’s relative is diagnosed with lung cancer, colon cancer, stomach cancer, or any of the

other numerous types of cancer. How come breast cancer is treated so much differently

than other types of cancer? It seems that this feeling is only reserved to one specific type

of cancer in breast cancer. Largely, this reasoning can be placed upon the extreme

commercialization of breast cancer, which puts focus on hot pink ribbons, “Saving the

Tatas,” and athletes sporting pink socks. Nevertheless, there is more to this feeling than

just the commercialization of the disease. The marketing of breast cancer, and thus the

image society portrays onto breast cancer has much to do with a male-oriented power

structure in our society. Barbara Johnson writes in her article, “Muteness Envy” of how

victimization can give one power. This can be translated into the patriarchal influences

society puts upon breast cancer. Breast cancer makes one group of people—women—

clearly a victim. In a response to retain power, our male-dominated society turns breast

cancer’s focus from women onto themselves.

Cancer and victimization

If the word “cancer” is mentioned, likely either one of two words will follow:

either “survivor” or “victim.” One becomes a “victim” the moment he or she is diagnosed

with cancer. The cancer has invaded the body; now, a person is thrust into what has

really become a culture—a culture of cancer. This culture, defined disease, requires its
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participants to become victims. Because cancer has no known cure and because of past

associations of disease and flawed character, one diagnosed with cancer is a “victim.” To

open the book, Sontag says:

My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or

metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful

way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most

purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take

up one's residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors

with which it has been landscaped. (Sontag 3-4)

Illness, especially one as mysterious as cancer is subject to consuming people’s fears and

uncertainty regarding its existence. As far as cancer is concerned, society projects these

fears into making cancer one of life’s most ultimate foes. As so many negative and evil

feelings are correlated with cancer, one who is diagnosed must be a “victim” of such evil.

One’s fight with cancer is frequently described using military-terms. For example,

once one is diagnosed with cancer, he or she is “fighting,” as I used above, or in a

“battle” with cancer. Shelley Cobb and Susan Starr elaborate on Sontag’s words in their

article, “Breast Cancer, Breast Surgery, and the Makeover Metaphor.” The authors write,

“The military metaphors in breast cancer awareness culture put the spotlight on the figure

of the ‘survivor’ who has ‘won her battle,’” because in war, there must be a winner and a

loser (Cobb 84). Due to its publicity, “survivor” is more frequently associated with breast

cancer than any other type of cancer (Kaiser 80).

Sontag also writes about a certain type of morality loss or character put upon

those who become ill. The associated of disease with morality is something long since
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trenched in society, although this became more prevalent after the introduction of

Christianity. Sontag writes, “a closer fit between disease and ‘victim’ gradually evolved”

following Christianity’s rise (Sontag 43). The ties between the ill and “victim” came

closer together in the 1800s, when the idea that overcoming disease was dependent on

one’s will. She wrote, in reference to beliefs at the time, “Disease is the will speaking

through the body, a language for dramatizing the mental: a form of self-expression,”

(Sontag 44). While we may not draw the same conclusions today as we did in past

decades and centuries regarding disease, the attitudes still continue to carry over. (Sontag


Sontag’s writing in Illness as a Metaphor tells us that a cancer diagnoses already

makes one a victim. However, if one adds femininity into the equation, one may be

further thought of as victimized. Victimization can be desirable, as it can lend to more

sympathy given to a privileged group.

The woman and breast cancer

A cancer diagnosis gives one a variety of feelings. Dorothy Broom details her

own feelings on her diagnosis in “Reading Breast Cancer” and writes, “My first reaction

to being diagnosed with breast cancer was to feel utterly overwhelmed. I was unable to

continue to be rational, critical and adult; those qualities seemed to have been exhausted

by [the hip surgery which revealed the caner],” (Broom 250). However, society’s

expectations of women require them to act quite differently. Broom says that she had to

learn to “conceal the physical signs of [her] illness,” (Broom 250). She also found that

there was a certain shame to being diagnosed with breast cancer and the subsequent
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operation, as opposed to the scarring from her hip operation. When diagnosed with breast

cancer, women are expected to conform to societal norms, which are inherently sexist.

(Broom 252-4)

This is the experience for so many women diagnosed with breast cancer in the

United States. According to, nearly 250,000 women will have been

diagnosed with an invasive type of breast cancer in 2016. An expected 60,000 more non-

invasive type diagnoses will affect American women this year as well. To put this into

perspective, at this point in time, 12% of women will face these same challenges within

their own lifetimes.

Before ever being diagnosed with her own cancer, these women will be exposed

to various media portraying their own versions of breast cancer, such as Breast Cancer

Awareness Month or Susan B. Komen breast cancer walks. Pink ribbons adorn television

screens during October and are displayed in grocery stores on cereal boxes, on yogurt

cups. The hot pink ribbon that defines breast cancer to so many is overloaded on our

culture. It is not surprising that some scholars refer to this as a “pink ribbon culture.”

The expectations society places upon women come from more than just “pink

ribbon culture,” however. Many of these expectations are deep-rooted in the patriarchal

society in which we live, and have been for centuries.

Breast cancer and the victimization of the woman

In 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich—a political activist and journalist—was diagnosed

with breast cancer. She wrote about her experience with “breast cancer culture” in

“Cancerland,” published by Harper’s Magazine. Ehrenreich writes, “cheerfulness, up to

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and including delusion and false hope, has a recognized place in medicine,” (Ehrenreich

49-50). This is expected—doctors should advise optimism in patients and inspire in them

a will to live. Without this expectation, the fight against cancer perhaps would not even

be referred to as a “fight.” That said, Ehrenreich also writes this: “cheerfulness is more or

less mandatory, [and] dissent [is] a kind of treason,” (Ehrenreich 50). Therein lies an

issue where women are expected to portray the stereotype of a happy, pleasant woman

even in the face of an illness that steals away many women’s sense of self and femininity.

A mastectomy or double mastectomy is a common surgery once one is diagnosed

with breast cancer. While looking at two different case studies, Cobb and Starr found that

“[m]any women emotionally locate important episodes in their life history such as

coming to adulthood or having children in their breasts, “ agreeing with a previous

observation by Marion Young (Cobb 88, Young 94). One such case was that of Lisa, who

realized before going into surgery that she connected her breasts with her children whom

she had breast-fed and even her cat her had made a habit of laying on her breasts at night.

She also noted “her sexual relationship with her husband [was] often centered around her

breasts,” (Cobb 87). With the loss of such an important part of the body, many women

are left not feeling like themselves anymore.

While a sense of self may be instilled in a woman’s breasts, her femininity is also

defined by their presence. Duerringer writes: “Breasts have long been signifiers of

normative femininity; they are associated with breastfeeding and fertility and, thus,

with motherhood and have long been sexualized as objects of male desire,”

(Duerringer 346). In many ways, a woman’s breasts represent femininity. Therefore,

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breast cancer and a subsequent mastectomy signifies the loss of femininity in a

woman, or at the very least, the appearance of that loss to the woman herself.

While cancer victimizes those that fall ill with it as a whole, the fact that

breast cancer revolves around a woman’s femininity and the lack thereof that makes

her more a victim than others who have cancer. Coupled with the expectation of

women to remain unrealistically optimistic throughout the whole ordeal, breast

cancer can very easily cause a woman to lose her sense of self. The fact that much of

the marketing of breast cancer promotes femininity with pink and childish

merchandise does nothing for the empowerment of breast cancer victims.

Duerringer writes this on page 355:

Feminist scholars have long argued that femininity has been articulated with

weakness, sexuality, naı¨vete´, and a kind of childishness because binary logic,

which serves as the central logic of gender construction, requires such an

association in order to posit masculinity as inherently strong, analytical, mature,

rational, and experienced (e.g., Gilman, 1911; Sutton, 1992). By linking breast

cancer activism with beauty and childishness, purveyors of these commodities

may be inadvertently disciplining women to remain demure and beautiful, even in

the face of a life-threatening illness.

With the symbolic loss of her femininity and need to remain a “perfect” woman, the

woman with breast cancer is most certainly victimized. By plastering pink ribbons and

teddy bears on shelves on breast cancer campaigns, we promote the reduction of the

woman to traditional gender constructions instead of the value of her own healthy body
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and life. The woman’s publicized and highly recognized victimization gives men more of

a platform to claim victimization for themselves, as explained in the next section.

Victimization as empowerment

Throughout history, a woman’s place has been in the background, extending to

the beliefs of how a woman diagnosed with breast cancer should act. In “Muteness

Envy,” mentioned at the beginning of the essay, Barbara Johnson talks about the value of

muteness: “Why is female muteness a repository of aesthetic value? And what does that

muteness signify?” (Johnson 133). Johnson’s “Muteness Envy” is usually read as a

comment on the irony of a man to claim victimhood, such as when Apollo attempted to

rape Daphne and then failed. Muteness Envy is what causes readers to feel sympathy

towards Apollo for his “loss” as opposed to Daphne who was sexually assaulted. It is

what allows those in power to claim victimhood and easily gain sympathy. Johnson

writes, “It is not that the victim always gets to speak—far from it—but that the most

highly valued speaker gets to claim victimhood,” (Johnson 153). Taking inspiration from

literature and popular culture, Johnson explains how and why a group in power may

claim victimization. Once an empowered group such as men declares victimhood, it

detracts from those that suffer from real victimization, such as women.

“Muteness envy” in regards to men has been around as long as feminism. In the

late 1800s and early 1900s, women finally decided to stand up for themselves and their

place in society. Throughout the next century and into the current, it has been met with

controversy and scrutiny. As a result of women gaining their own voices, men have felt

like they must be heard as well. For example, the term meninist is derived from feminist
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and instead focuses on “men’s rights.” However, the term only appeared in recent years

as an answer to feminism. Meninist is an attempt by some men—generally white men—

to victimize themselves, to turn “muteness envy” into a reality. With this idea, we can

apply the how breast cancer became so heavily commercialized with femininity and

sexuality. The victimization women suffer as breast cancer “victims” detracts from a

focus on men. In a male-dominated society, it is interesting women, as a discriminated

group, get more attention in the context of a disease like cancer, which affects the

population as a whole regardless of gender.

With breast cancer’s focus on a woman’s breasts instead of the woman herself, it

makes the disease as a whole male and sexuality-oriented. Due to its mysterious nature of

which there is no cure, cancer takes “victims.” One affected by cancer is always a victim

once diagnosed due to the rhetoric surrounding the disease dating back to its discovery.

Given that breast cancer primarily affects women, it also puts their victimization at the

front of society on television, in sports, and thus in everyday life.

Marketing and breast cancer

For many years, even having breast cancer was thought of something shameful. In

her 1979 book entitled Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag She writes, as she compares

cancer to another similarly treated illness, tuberculosis: “While TB takes on qualities

assigned to the lungs, which are part of the upper, spiritualized body, cancer is notorious

for attacking parts of the body (colon, bladder, rectum, breast, cervix, prostate, testicles)

that are embarrassing to acknowledge,” (Sontag 17). When one died after a long battle

with cancer, he or she was said to have experienced “a long illness,” (Sontag 14). In
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1991, this all changed after “pink ribbon culture” began to

emerge. First seen in a New York City breast cancer race,

the pink ribbon became popularized after Estee Lauder and

Self Magazine partnered together and started to distribute

the ribbons in New York City Estee Lauder stores. Now,

the over-commercialization of breast cancer has turned

campaigns into more about profits than awareness.

(Duerringer 351)

Everyone knows someone who has run in a Susan G. Komen breast cancer race.

We have all seen grocery products plastered with a pink ribbon, claiming to donate a

portion of the cost to breast cancer research. Baseball players bat with pink baseball bats

while wearing pink socks or a logo on their shirts. NFL players have bright pink socks

and talk in commercials about their mothers who have fought breast cancer. During the

commercials, women talk about their own experiences with breast cancer and we become

overwhelmed, and perhaps oversaturated with these displays of support.

Susan G. Komen is one of the biggest names in breast cancer, and its website is

heavily decorated in the hot pink of its breast cancer ribbon, its brand. The front page

opens with endorsements from celebrities, and women describing their own breast cancer

journeys in carefully crafted words. Susan G. Komen lists “Shop Komen Merchandise”

under how to get involved. Yes, instead of merchandise to support breast cancer, it is

entitled “Komen Merchandise.” “Komen Merchandise” includes anything from hot pink

stationary to bathrobes, from duffle bags to golf supplies. As Duerringer describes in his

article, there is no actual mention of breast cancer in these items. The words “breast
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cancer” do not show up. Where one may expect to find those words, instead “Susan G.

Komen” or a pink ribbon may be

displayed. When she was diagnosed

with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich

found that “’Awareness’ beats secrecy

and stigma of course, but I can’t help

noticing that the existential space in

which a friend has earnestly advised me to ‘confront [my] mortality’ bears a striking

resemblance to the mall,” (Ehrenreich 46).

Considerable amounts of the rhetoric we see regarding breast cancer also focus

specifically on the woman’s breast and saving a body part instead of a human life.

Slogans like, “Save the TaTas,” “TaTas Make Me Happy” or “Save Second Base”

prioritize “America’s favorite sex organ,” as Duerringer calls it. On Susan G. Komen’s

website, merchandise is marketed in some cases with the image of a nearly-naked, clearly

non-mastectomized woman. While the advertisement is marketing a bra fitting “for the

cure,” such images should seem a little out of place given the context. Instead, they are a

normal part of a major company’s front page. Apparently, according to Susan G. Komen,

fighting for a cure for breast cancer should be sexy. Given that so much weight in society

and in breast cancer is placed upon breasts, perhaps that is not surprising. In a culture

where a woman’s breasts are usually put to shame (for example, a woman can be blamed

for her own rape if she shows too much of her own skin), an unusual amount of attention

in popular media goes to a woman’s breasts. Duerringer cites in his article a study by

Peters-Golden that found “the support extended to [breast cancer survivors] is often
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inappropriate in nature, due to the mistaken assumption on the part of healthy individuals

that the most salient concern of a mastectomized woman is the loss of her breast, rather

than the fact that she has cancer,” (Duerringer 346).

. Ever since the introduction of the pink ribbon in 1991, cancer culture has been

dominated by “pink ribbon culture.”

Gibson et al. describes this as a sort of

“illness culture.” Citing Lauren Berlant,

Emily Waples writes that “the breast

cancer narrative not only subscribes to the

master plot of autobiography generally,

but also tends to reproduce what Lauren

Berlant has called the ‘central fantasy’ of women’s culture: ‘the constantly emplotted

desire of a complex person to rework the details of her history to become a vague or

simpler version of herself,” (Waples 50). A “vague or simpler version of” a woman is to

become a stereotype—feminine, modest, and quiet about her diagnosis with breast


With a distinct focus on femininity and sexuality, breast cancer also is noticeably

affluent and heteronormative. For example, take a look to the right at the cover image on

the American Breast Cancer Foundation’s website. Out of ten women, only one is a

person of color, and even then, the photo’s lighting makes her skin appear similar to the

other white women’s. Each woman in the photo is well kept, and, of course, wearing

pink. Being white and heterosexual as marketing displays is an advantage to the breast

cancer patient. Gibson, Lee and Crabb say in “Representations of Women on Australian
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Breast Cancer Websites: Cultural 'inclusivity' and Marginalisation” that lesbians face

discrimination in cancer groups in their home of Australia and elsewhere, like Canada.

The authors reported that in Canada, lesbians did not join breast cancer support groups

due to fear of being discriminated, and in some cases they were right—some groups did

not welcome their partners. (Gibson et al. 1-3)

The consumption and marketing surrounding breast cancer focuses on a woman’s

breasts more than the woman’s life itself. Through phrases such as “Save Second Base”

or even using femininity and sexuality to gather donations and raise awareness, the value

of a woman’s life is placed upon “America’s favorite sex organ.” The victimization of a

dominant group is more highly heard than that of the lesser—“It is not that the victim

always gets to speak—far from it—but that the most highly valued speaker gets to claim

victimhood,” as Johnson wrote in “Muteness Envy” (Johnson 153). Instead of breast

cancer campaigns revolving around saving lives, as they should, they become male-

centric. Sex sells. Now breast cancer does, too.


Less than a month after my aunt was diagnosed, my aunt spent Christmas Eve in

the hospital as she had a double-mastectomy. A running joke between my mother’s

family became (as my aunt was previously a AA cup), “She’s getting new boobies for

Christmas!” While the news that my aunt had been diagnosed with cancer was by no

means a joyous occasion, we made ourselves feel better about the situation through

humor focused on my aunt’s breasts. The media we were exposed to as women drizzled

pink over ribbons and fluffy teddy bears in the face of a serious and life-threatening
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disease. Breast cancer is not meant to be drizzled in pink. Instead of spending time

celebrating the holidays with my cousin and her husband, my aunt spent Christmas in

bed, with drains attached to her body and bandages soaking up blood from her surgery.

She could not move without pain for months, and when she was finally ready to have

reconstruction surgery, first she had to have material inserted in her chest in order to

stretch her skin. The images we see of breast cancer on television do not mention these

things; they do not mention the toll that chemotherapy and radiation take on the body as a

patient goes through treatment for months. Commercials and fundraisers sanitize their

promotion of breast cancer and make it something friendly to put on sugar cookies and

milk cartons. We become comfortable and oblivious at this disease as we watch Monday

Night Football with our family; the players deck themselves out in pretty pink socks and

wristbands but many will go home and abuse their own wives. In order to commercialize

breast cancer, corporations have oversaturated the market with overly feminine marketing

and happy, smiling women—dubbed “survivors.” These marketing strategies work for

making corporations millions, however they undermine the experiences of real women

diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of saving women’s lives and well being, we “Save

the TaTas” or “Save Second Base.” Muteness Envy allows the actual pains experienced

by women fighting breast cancer to take second place to cutesy marketing and male-

oriented awareness.
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Works Cited

Cobb, Shelley, and Susan Starr. "Breast Cancer, Breast Surgery, and the Makeover

Metaphor." Social Semiotics 22.1 (2012): 83-101. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Duerringer, Christopher M. "Winking and Giggling at Creeping Death: Thanatophobia

and the Rhetoric of Save the Ta-Tas." Journal of Communication Inquiry 37.4

(2013): 344-63. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Welcome to Cancerland, vol. 303, Harper's Magazine Foundation,

New York, 2001.

Gibson, A., C. Lee, and S. Crabb. "Representations of Women on Australian Breast

Cancer Websites: Cultural 'inclusivity' and Marginalisation." Journal of Sociology

52.2 (2016): 433-52. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Johnson, Barbara. "Muteness Envy." Deconstruction : Critical Concepts in Literary and

Cultural Studies. Vol. 2. (2003): 338-352. Print.

Kaiser, Karen. "The Meaning of the Survivor Identity for Women with Breast Cancer."

Social Science & Medicine 67.1 (2008): 79-87. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Sontag, Susan. Illness As Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.

Waples, E. "Emplotted Bodies: Breast Cancer, Feminism, and the Future." Tulsa Studies

in Womens Literature 32-33.2 (2013): 47. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Wilkinson, Sue. "Breast Cancer: Feminism, Representations and Resistance - a

Commentary on Dorothy Broom's 'Reading Breast Cancer'" Health 5.2 (2001):

269-77. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

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