Disability Studies · Scholarship

#cwcon: Cancer Rhetoric

This is the second presentation that I’m giving at #cwcon this year (part of m1, “disability ftw! activism, embodiment, and online communities”). Although this is new work for me in terms of conference presentations, cancer and cancer discourses are something that I think about, blog about, and for a long time was part of my family fabric.


Cancer Rhetoric & the Ab/normality of Disabled Women’s Bodies

Posted: Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

BY: The Record Delta 5-18-09

Susan L. Hitt, 56, of South Charleston passed away Friday, May 8 at Hubbard Hospice House after a long and courageous battle with cancer.

This is the beginning of the obituary that I helped write for my mother. Today would have been her 63rd birthday, and it’s her struggles with cancer—first breast, then ovarian—that have fueled my interests in cancer discourses.

The metaphor in her obituary is a familiar one of battle, war. Kristen Garrison argues that in the cancer-as-war metaphor, “Women are enlisted in a battle against the self, their bodies made war zones, with cancer as the enemy, medical professionals as infallible heroes, and treatments of search-and-destroy by any means possible.” How we write about cancer, how we name and describe it, influences our cultural and personal understandings and, as Karen Kopelson argues, “makes possible or impossible what we understand, and then do, about breast cancer as the public, political, raced, classed, and gendered health crisis that it is” (131). So I’d like to focus on how breast cancer discourses impact how we understand and idealize the “normal” female body.

I don’t intend to conflate cancer and disability, but I do want to draw attention to their similarities. Women with cancer may face long-term disabilities and, even if a woman with cancer doesn’t identify as disabled, her condition may be disabling. And Jay Dolmage and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson argue that “any body subjected to the medical gaze becomes disabled to some extent, through its positioning as passive object, and through the over-signification of bodily deviation” (29). Narratives about cancer and disability share medicalized desires for diagnosis and cure for the abnormal body—the need for early detection, prevention, and technological intervention. There are overlaps, too, in the emphasis on overcoming adversity.

I employ a feminist disability studies (FDS) framework “in order to unmask the powers and processes of ‘norming’ and the construction of ‘normality’” (Dolmage and Lewiecki-Wilson 24) in breast cancer discourse. FDS makes visible and critiques the way that bodies have historically and are continually oppressed, and Kim Q. Hall writes, “FDS makes the body, bodily variety, and normalization central to analyses of all forms of oppression” (5). FDS becomes a useful tool, then, for making visible normate assumptions about disability and women’s bodies.

And although it’s tempting to spend the rest of my time critiquing the misogyny and misplaced intentions of breast cancer awareness campaigns, that’s not my purpose. Instead, I want to think about what an FDS framework lends to the analysis of breast cancer awareness campaigns in terms of technology—specifically preventative and reconstructive technologies—and the narratives that we circulate about cancer and women’s bodies.

My research focuses on rhetorics of overcoming, the idea that individuals must overcome their disabilities or disabling conditions in order to meet a particular social standard. As Simi Linton has argued, the ideology embedded in overcoming is one “of personal triumph over a personal condition” (18). Breast cancer discourses reinforce rhetorics of overcoming by emphasizing diagnosis and promoting technological intervention, positioning the responsibility (the prevention, detection, and eradication) of breast cancer in the literal hands of the individual.

ad 1: Get Screened Now
ad 1: Get Screened Now

In this ad, the message is one of individual responsibility. Pictured is a woman and—more prominently—a hot pink arrow that reads, “What’s key to surviving breast cancer? You.” The arrow points to additional text at the bottom of the ad in all caps that reads, “GET SCREENED NOW.” The responsibility is on the woman to secure a breast cancer screening to prevent and/or detect her cancer.

In her 2013 New York Times op-ed about the decision to undergo preventative double mastectomy surgery, Angelina Jolie writes, “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.” Despite the high percentages of many types of cancer, it is still positioned as individual: women simply need determination and to choose to make use of the technology at their hands. Such arguments fail to account for whether or not women have access to these technologies and services, and an FDS perspective helps illuminate the larger conditions that structure women’s material experiences.


ad 2: Facebook, If only you checked your breasts as often.
ad 2: Facebook, If only you checked your breasts as often.

Although arguments about preventative technologies are more common, some campaigns rely on rhetorics of social media. This series of images launched by the Breast Cancer Foundation takes familiar icons and adapts them to mimic hands engaging in self-examinations. For Facebook, the “f” is shaped like a hand cupping a breast, the Twitter bird is a groping hand, and the Instagram camera has a hand reaching down toward the lens/nipple. The text reads, “If only you checked your breasts as often,” emphasizing not only individual responsibility but also guilt and shame. There are resonances here of millennial critiques of wasting time online and the literal dangers of constantly checking social media (and not your breasts).

Ads 3 & 4: Twitter & Instagram, If only you checked your breasts as often
Ads 3 & 4: Twitter & Instagram, If only you checked your breasts as often


Another interesting focus of breast cancer awareness campaigns is reconstruction, specifically reconstructive surgery and prosthetic technology. These discourses are tightly interwoven with discourses of overcoming, passing, and obtaining a “normal” body.

For example, the “Save the Women Not the Boobies” campaign is an effort “to honor the lives of the women affected by the disease and not commemorate their breast.” The ads often feature Black women—an underrepresented group in mainstream breast cancer awareness initiatives, but even in their attempt to write more inclusive counter-narratives, the ads often default to normative assumptions and idealizations. In this ad, the text reads, “Save the women not the boobies” followed by “cause you can buy new ones.” The main message is that saving lives is most important, but the underlying assumption is that breasts are still really important and can (and should) be reconstructed later.

In a 2014 report published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers found that breast reconstruction is increasing: 46% in 1998, 63% in 2007 (Jagsi et al. 2). These percentages are drastically different in urban and rural regions, though (80% in D.C. and 18% in North Dakota), and, in another 2014 report, researchers found that African American women, under-educated women, and older women are less likely to choose reconstruction (Morrow et al.).

How reconstruction—and the rejection of reconstruction, “going flat” or “living flat”—gets written is important for understanding the ways in which we norm women’s bodies through the desire for two, intact breasts. Wholeness. These discourses also present opportunities to analyze issues of access, race, sexuality, class, and age that impact women’s decisions to choose or reject reconstructive surgery or a prosthetic technology.

The tensions between lived experiences and the dis/embodied role that technologies play in these processes were made starkly clear by Audre Lorde years ago in The Cancer Journals. Reflecting on her experiences after undergoing a mastectomy as a Black, queer feminist, Lorde critiques the prosthetic breast as an illusory tool that tricks women and “encourages [them] not to deal with [themselves] as physically and emotionally real, even though altered and traumatized” (58).

In Narrative Prosthesis, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder also argue against the illusory function of prosthetic technologies, noting that prostheses are used to restore the body to a sense of wholeness when it has deviated too far from the acceptable norm (6-7). Reconstructive technologies are normalizing—designed to police a desirable, feminine form. Indeed, Lorde argues, “Only false breasts are designed for appearance only, as if the only real function of women’s breasts were to appear in a certain shape and size and symmetry to onlookers, or to yield to external pressure” (65). Prosthetic breasts lack function other than to make a woman look and feel as “normal” as possible.

Breast cancer is an enterprise—1 in 8 U.S. women are diagnosed with it, billions of dollars are raised to research it. It affects women (and men) of all race, class, age, sexual identity, yet it gets positioned as an individual issue, as something that happens because you weren’t [proactive] or [happy] or [strong] enough. These are narratives that multi-million dollar companies circulate and that we write upon our own bodies, and those narratives are worth questioning.

I think an FDS framework helps us raise a number of questions that are useful to bring up in rhetoric and writing classrooms:

  • What arguments do these breast cancer awareness campaigns make? Who are their audiences, and what is their purpose?
  • How do narratives of technological prevention and intervention reinforce arguments of technological determinism? How could discourses of technology be more effectively employed? (For example, how could that social media campaign be reimagined?)
  • How do breast cancer awareness discourses affect our understandings of disability, women, and the “natural” or “normal” human body?
  • How do we create awareness campaigns that are more inclusive and informative, that don’t reproduce singular or unified experiences (particularly in digital and professional writing classes that are focused on visual rhetoric and document design or that partner with local non-profits)?

FDS is an opportunity to reimagine not only the material conditions of our bodies but also the social structures that police them. It’s a useful framework for analyzing the breast cancer discourses that saturate our media and to highlight the discourses that are left out: to imagine what a more inclusive, intersectional awareness campaign might look like.

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