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?

The Risky Subject in the Risky Body: On BRCA Mutations and DCIS

Peggy Orenstein’s new article “When Cancer Is Not Cancer” tackles the dicey subject of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS).

Orenstein visits UC-San Francisco oncology professor, Dr. Laura Esserman. She describes Esserman’s office as decorated with quotes that amount to “When you challenge people’s deeply held beliefs, well, haters gonna hate.” Considering I recently told Cancer Curmudgeon and Get Up Swinging that we should make t-shirts that say Cancer Haters Gonna HATE, you won’t be surprised to hear that Esserman is a scientist after mine own heart.

At issue here is overdiagnosis, a problem in American medicine in general and in breast cancer oncology in particular. Most people tend to think of cancer as something you either have or you don’t have, when in fact cancer is more like a spectrum. Multiple stages stand between a healthy breast and deadly invasive metastatic cancer, including hyperplasia, hyperplasia with atypia, and DCIS.

DCISrange

Orenstein’s article is worth quoting at length.

“Esserman has focused on ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an overgrowth of cells in the milk ducts. DCIS was rare before universal screening. It now accounts for 30 percent of breast cancers — nearly 65,000 cases a year. With its near 100 percent cure rate, DCIS would seem like a triumph of early detection. Except for this: In 50 to 90 percent of cases (estimates vary widely), it will stay where it is — “in situ” means “in place.” It lacks the capacity to spread, so by definition, it will never become life threatening. Yet because there has been no way to predict which cases might morph into invasive cancer, all are treated as potentially lethal. By 2020, 1 million women will likely be living with a DCIS diagnosis. If, conservatively, half are harmless, that means hundreds of thousands of women will have been overtreated, enduring the physical risks and psychological devastation of any cancer patient.”

Certainly, average women are being overdiagnosed with breast cancer and this is not likely to change any time soon. Quite frankly, the cancer industry makes a lot of money by putting women through needless surgery and treatment. Not coincidentally, women have been trained to remain hyper-vigilant about early detection, despite the fact that early detection doesn’t work. As Orenstein and Esserman discuss, if early detection actually saved lives, then the increasing diagnosis of DCIS (AKA “stage 0 breast cancer”) would dramatically improve survival rates. That hasn’t happened.

Together early detection (the pinkwashed cult of mammography, self breast exams, etc.) and overdiagnosis have dramatically extended the “breast cancer continuum” that Maren Klawiter discusses in The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer:

“The movement of the mammographic gaze into asymptomatic populations transformed a relatively clear either-or distinction into a more fluid, fuzzily bounded, and ambiguous breast cancer continuum. Instead of the temporary, either-or sick role of the earlier regime, the regime of biomedicalization created the ‘risk role’ for its new subjects–a role that required that the regime’s risky subjects take up permanent residence along the breast cancer continuum” (86).

I named my blog the risky body long before I read Klawiter’s book, because I wanted to highlight the way that genetic testing turns subjects into objects–in other words, how deleterious BRCA+ results turn women into mere bodies defined by incalculable risk. Thus the headless woman in my blog header. So you can imagine how excited I was when I read Klawiter’s chapter about “risky subjects.” She describes how the medical industry has radically expanded the breast cancer community to include asymptomatic women through proliferating screening methods and pinkwashed discourses, thereby “reconstitut[ing] adult women as risky subjects” (85). My excitement about Klawiter’s work can most accurately be rendered thusly:  !!!! OMG YES ^THIS !!!!

It’s clear that overdiagnosis is a massive problem fueled by capitalist interests invested in a cancer industry that turns nearly all adult women into risky subjects in need of constant cancer screening and/or treatment, regardless of whether or not such actions actually improve women’s health and wellbeing. We need more critiques like Klawiter’s, Samantha King’s, and Gayle Sulik’s to help average women understand–and hopefully resist–the medical ideologies they are being subjected to.

But what does all overdiagnosis mean for BRCA+ and other HBOC women?

Obviously, the discovery of BRCA1 radically expanded the breast cancer continuum in the early 1990s, and, in some ways, HBOC women became the ultimate risky subjects. If DCIS is an un-cancer, then so are BRCA mutations. By this I mean that neither DCIS nor BRCA mutations are cancer until suddenly some day for some women (who we can’t single out in advance) they do in fact become cancer.

How many women are subjected to antiquated, ineffectual, expensive, time-consuming, and stressful screening methods to find those women who will actually develop breast cancer? Sure, we know BRCA+ women are far more likely than an average woman to develop cancer. However, screening alone isn’t prevention. It does save some lives, but not nearly as many as you’d hope it would. Is it any wonder so many BRCA+ women drop surveillance entirely after a few years?

It’s a frustrating situation if you’re like me: a BRCA+ feminist who wants to resist pinkwashed capitalist medical ideologies (if that’s you, then CALL ME MAYBE (or maybe just tweet me @theriskybody maybe because calling would be rather creepy)). I don’t want to be a dupe of pinkwashers and the cancer industry. I want solid scientifically proven methods for preventing, detecting, and treating breast and ovarian cancer. There ought to be a better way of handling things, but right now there isn’t.

While I know screening methods for breast and ovarian cancer are woefully ineffective for both average and HBOC women, I still feel viscerally compelled to be a “responsible patient” by submitting to rigorous screening several times a year. I struggle against being a risky subject in a risky body, however subjectively and genetically inevitable that may be. Honestly, BRCA+ ideological and practical clusterfucks like this made prophylactic mastectomy a no brainer for me.

[P.S. An incomplete draft of this post was accidentally published last week, and when I took it down I lost the great comment someone had posted–sorry about that!]