Sexualizing cancer risk

Have you seen the The Cancer Sutra website? It promotes having people check their partners for cancer during sex.

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“Because fear of cancer can be as bad as cancer itself.
Because the earlier you detect cancer, the greater the chances
of treating it successfully.
Because fear, like cancer, may have the power to spread”

The idea that “the fear of cancer can be as bad as cancer itself” isn’t new to high risk women. Studies have shown that testing positive for a deleterious BRCA mutation has the same psychological impact on a woman as being diagnosed with cancer. But Cancer Sutra isn’t for high risk women, or even for women in general. It’s for everyone, regardless of gender or risk.

I can’t help but think of Maren Klawiter’s work on the biopolitics of breast cancer. Klawiter talks about how medicalization has sucked us all into the breast cancer continuum. Regardless of our family histories, our genes, etc., every woman resides on the continuum. We are all risky subjects. We’re taught to fear cancer and fear our potentially-cancerous bodies from an early age: to monitor ourselves and submit to screening in order to be good little patients. There’s a lot of money to made off risky subjects.

Of course, cancer and sex do overlap. Women who’ve had breast cancer and women who’ve had mastectomies must confront the knotty relations between cancer and sex all too often. That’s inevitable when dealing with surgery to an erogenous zone as highly fetishized as the breast. But this campaign is different: the Cancer Sutra wants people without high risk, without a diagnosis, without post-surgical or post-treatment bodies, to sexualize cancer. And it’s all wrapped up in a glossy package with pro-sex, queer friendly prints for sale.

The Cancer Sutra shows just have far the discourse of cancer risk has seeped into the most intimate corners of people’s lives. Now it’s not just women being targeted. As we’re constantly being reminded on breast cancer social media, men get breast cancer too–and prostate cancer and testicular cancer, etc. (you gotta love the insistent “WHAT ABOUT US MEN!” talk that irrupts in every women-dominated space). We’re beyond the breast cancer continuum here. Now all human beings can live in a constant state of cat-like cancer awareness.

Sure, a lot of people get cancer, and telling people to look out for it might seem like a no brainer. However, once again individual solutions are being posed to the systemic problem of the cancer epidemic. It’s awfully convenient, given the ruthlessly expanding cancer continuum and the ever hungry cancer industry, that we’re told to take individual responsibility for a phenomenon so very far outside of our personal control.

Eat right, exercise, think happy thoughts, and you won’t get cancer. Screen constantly, report for checkups like a good little soldier, and you won’t get cancer. If you do somehow get cancer, then it will be caught early and you’ll be a survivor. If you don’t, your cancer will be caught late, your prognosis will be bad, and it will be your own fault. Popular discourses on cancer focus on individual responsibility and individual blame. It’s much easier than fixing widespread environmental pollution, contaminants in our food and personal care products, genetic mutations, and just plain old bad luck. It’s also a lot cheaper.

The Cancer Sutra promotes the idea that groping around your partner’s body to feel for tumors is fun and sexy. Nevermind that it doesn’t actually tell people what they should be looking for during all this hot sweaty orgasmic DIY cancer screening. Nevermind that it suggests early detection is effective for all cancers (it categorically is not). Or that it suggests all cancers act alike (they categorically do not). Or that it suggests all cancers progress neatly from stage 1 to stage 2 to stage 3 to stage 4 (the don’t). And that it suggests individuals can interrupt that tidy progression to save their own lives (sometimes, often not).

If all that wasn’t troubling enough, the Cancer Sutra promotes the idea that we–each and every one of us–should be thinking about cancer rather than pleasure during sex, or rather that we should be finding pleasure in thinking about cancer during sex. How perverse is that?

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“Mamming”: the not trend sweeping no nations

“MAMMING”! It’s a fad that’s fab!

This is what I thought when I saw this article:

Sassy Gay Friend thinks you need to reconsider posting these pictures on the internet.

Two women named Michelle Jaret and Michelle Lamont “invented” “mamming” to raise “awareness” about mammograms. The breasty equivalent of bygone internet memes like planking, “mamming” is supposed to be a fun, G-rated way to encourage women to get screened for breast cancer. You can see more examples at http://www.thisismamming.com, but why would you want to? 

I’m feeling increasingly suspicious of mammograms these days, particularly the way they are touted as preventative care. A quote from one of the mammo-Michelles illustrates this point well: Michelle Lamont (who works for an advertising agency, of course) says “When I was sick, I asked my doctors about a cure – one actually told me that the best cure we have is prevention. […] Prevention is screening like mammograms and self-exams and they are the best tool we have to catch cancer early, and catching it early is how we beat it.” For the record, mammograms do not prevent cancer. Period. Full stop. If categorizing mammograms as preventative care for insurances purposes makes them more affordable and more widely available, then I’m for it, but let’s not pretend that it cures anything. Survival rates for breast cancer have more to do with the biological makeup of a woman’s particular tumors than with catching cancer early: you can catch cancer at stage one and still die from it. Happens all the time. Mammograms are a good tool, women need them, and BRCA+ women need them more than most, but they are not magic bullets for breast cancer prevention or treatment.

As for “mamming” (you don’t actually think I’m going to use that term without scare quotes, do you?), let me count the ways that I hate it:

1. OMG BOOBS! On top of the things! BOOBS ON THINGS are so interesting!

2. It’s important to Raise Awareness. Because people aren’t already aware of breast cancer. Most people have never heard of it. I heard it happened to a woman in Idaho who is a friend of my cousin’s boyfriend’s boss’s ex-wife, but I can’t be sure.

3. Humor is a totally appropriate way to deal with a deadly, gory, disfiguring disease that destroys people’s lives. It’s hilarious, don’t be so uptight. I wish that I could see the funny, but I can’t because I threw away my sense of humor when I became a card carrying feminist.

4. It claims to try to make fun of the awkwardness of mammograms, so that more women will get them. But is awkwardness keeping women from getting mammograms? I doubt it.

6. It claims to be G rated, but at the end of the day it sexualizes breast cancer. Again.

7. Almost all the women in these photos are in their 20s. Should women that young be encouraged to get mammograms? No. Not unless they have a BRCA+ mutation or a very, very strong family history of breast cancer, in which case they probably don’t need to be told to get screening.

8. Putting aside the issue of how overhyped mammograms are, this lame meme is not going to inspire anyone to get a mammogram.