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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Scaremongering non-BRCA+ young women

Bright Pink recently posted an article on Facebook about breast cancer risk factors for college-aged women with the following quote and commentary:

“‘Unfortunately, college-age women generally do not consider themselves at risk for breast cancer,’ said Dr. Mercier. ‘However, there are several risk factors that contribute to the development of breast cancer that need to be understood early in life to prevent the development of breast cancer down the road.’

Further support for starting this conversation NOW. Join us in learning what you can do as a young woman to reduce your risk for breast and ovarian cancer. http://www.brightpink.org/awareness-to-action/risk-reduction/’

Huh?

The article ominously notes that breast cancer “can strike at any age.” That’s true, but misleading. Breast cancer can indeed strike at any age. The youngest breast cancer survivor was just 11 years old. However, there’s a difference between what’s possible and what’s probable. Your average 30-year-old woman has just a .44% risk of breast cancer. The vast majority of women in their 20s do not get breast cancer.

You might say that it can’t hurt to make women in their 20s aware of their future risks. After all, 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer, which means that an American woman has a 12% risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Shouldn’t young women be warned? I’m skeptical of that argument. Most women are already “aware” of breast cancer. They know that they should eat healthy and exercise. They know that they should have annual gynecological visits that include breast exams. They know that they are supposed to perform self breast exams (despite the fact that self exams have not proven beneficial at early detection).

At the same time, American women are at high risk for many different diseases: diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and many others. In fact, women are greater risk for developing lung cancer and heart disease than breast cancer. Should we be warning them about these diseases too? Are young women supposed to spend their time “preventing” these diseases? That information is already out there, saturating the news, twitter, Facebook, women’s magazines, and so many other venues.

I do think that women in their 20s should be informed about breast cancer, just as they need to be informed about reproductive health in general, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control. But there’s a difference between being informed and scaremongering.  Note the rhetoric: breast cancer “strike[s]”–it lays in wait like a biological cobra or tumorous lightning bolt; no one is safe. While there is a grain of truth here (insofar as breast cancer cuts across age, class, race, culture, and other vectors of identity), the truth is most women in their 20s do not need to be extra vigilant about breast cancer.

Moreover, it seems odd to me that Bright Pink, an organization for young BRCA+ women, would be advocating this much foreknowledge and vigilance for young women in general. BRCA+ women live in fear of cancer and with good reason. Those who test positive for a mutation at a young age spend most of their lives haunted by the threat and/or experience of cancer, but that doesn’t mean that average women of average risk should as well. There is such a thing as too much awareness, especially when it’s not backed up by good science and common sense. We need to find the line between promoting health and promoting hypochondria.