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!]

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The Ethics of Corporate HBOC and BRCA+ “Advocacy”

I’m feeling pretty pissy today about for-profit genetic corporations trying to co-opt BRCA+ and HBOC advocacy. I had a terrible fucking day full of HBOC-induced suffering. This was one of those days when I just felt cursed by being BRCA+. A day that involved not just one, but two emergency doctor visits, a whole day of sitting in waiting rooms, plenty of being patronized and jerked around, and a minor procedure that left me bleeding, crying, and defeated.

I came home exhausted and desperate to decompress, so I set myself up in my recliner with my comfy blanket, I put on some terrible TV show on Netflix, and I logged on to twitter to catch up on the day’s HBOC tweets. I found the #BRCA stream filled with sponsored tweets for a certain genetics company. Again. I cannot possibly be the only one who has noticed the spamming of the #BRCA hashtag with advertisements for this particular company’s genetic tests in the last few months. I’m over it.

Remember when Myriad Genetics set up that lame twitter account called @mysupport360 that was all “yay, BRCA+ empowerment! Give us yer money!” and tried to pretend it wasn’t related to their company? Andrea Downing, Teri Smieja, and I had a good time lampooning that lame attempt at using social media to lure in clients (this episode is documented over at Brave Bosom). Andrea also has this post on another one of Myriad’s unscrupulous attempts to dupe the HBOC community.

But Myriad Genetics aren’t the only ones playing this game. Other genetics corporates are using social media to draw in BRCA+ and HBOC patients. Forging friendships and alliances with individual patient advocates both within and without the BRCA+ community can be really wonderful for BRCA+ women, both personally (friendships with people in similar circumstances!) and also in terms of advocacy (strength in numbers!). The only problem is that some patients are being paid or given perks to advocate not only for their particular diseases or disabilities, but for particular genetic corporations.

I found this out the hard way when one of my favorite bloggers started spamming the #BRCA stream with advertisements for a certain genetics company. I tweeted her and asked what her particular relationship with that genetics company was. She direct messaged me and said they sponsor her advocacy, allowing her to do way more than she would be able to otherwise. Then she asked me to delete my tweet. I did, because I like most of her tweets. I’m not naming names here, because I respect this particular blogger’s writing and her advocacy is important (although I’m sure this post will piss her off and probably ruin our twitter friendship. That sucks.)

Recently, I’ve been noticing more of this sort of thing within the BRCA+ and larger cancer genetics community. Start paying attention and you’ll find lots of sponsored tweets–sponsored tweets that are never identified as sponsored, naturally. I expect that sort of behavior from Kim Kardashian, but I find the lack of transparency of sponsored posts in the HBOC and BRCA+ communities (both on twitter and other social media sites) profoundly disturbing.

Even more, I find the spamming of the #BRCA hashtag with tweets that are really ads for a genetics company particularly offensive because I consider that hashtag to be a lifeline to BRCA+ information, support, and genuine community building. I depend upon that hashtag for information and community every. single. day. No exaggeration.

I’m not saying people whose advocacy is being funded by genetic corporations are not actual advocates. In fact, the trend I’m noticing is that individual people start off as amateur advocates–they start blogs, they begin to tweet, they build websites, they post on BRCA+ message boards, etc.–and then are noticed by and recruited by genetics corporations who offer to help them expand their advocacy. It sounds awfully tempting.

Take, for instance, the #BeBRCAware campaign, which I first encountered at the Joining FORCEs conference in Philly. I asked the man at the booth what #BeBRCAware was all about. He told me that it was an effort to train women to become ambassadors for BRCA+ awareness. He said they even fly out potential advocates–if I recall correctly, to California–for this training. “Sign me up!” I thought.

After all, I already devote countless hours to BRCA+ and HBOC advocacy; it would be great to have some professional training and institutional support. And you know what, all this blogging and tweeting is hard work. I research stuff. I read lots of medical articles and tons of books to provide accurate information. I spend a lot of time talking to women who need emotional support or who are seeking resources. Advocacy is WORK and for me it’s an unpaid labor of love (I hate cliches, but it’s true in this case).

That’s when I noticed the small AstraZeneca logo on the booth and I was like “Oh, hells no.” Why? Because we can thank AstraZeneca for the clusterfuck that is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Their unethical practices in jump starting Pinktober are very well documented. Here’s a quote (the tip of the iceberg really) from a frequently circulated article called “The Dark Side of Breast Cancer (Un)Awareness Month”:

“AstraZeneca, manufacturer of the blockbuster breast cancer drugs Arimidex and Tamoxifen, was formed through the merger of Astra AB and Zeneca Group (a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries) in 1999. Imperial Chemical Industries, a multinational corporation responsible for producing carcinogenic petrochemical derivatives such as vinyl chloride and pesticides, founded National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, in order to promote the widespread adoption of x-ray mammography, whose horrors we have documented elsewhere.

Sadly, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time of increasing awareness not of the preventable causes of breast cancer, but of the breast cancer industry’s insatiable need to both raise money for research into a pharmaceutical cure, and to promote its primary means of “prevention”: early detection via x-ray mammography.”

So basically AstraZeneca profits from producing products that give women breast cancer, profits from producing products that diagnose breast cancer, and then profits producing drugs that chemoprevent and also treat breast cancer. They’ve really got all their bases covered, don’t they? They profit from every single aspect of breast cancer risk and diagnosis. But it’s not in women’s best interests. And now they’ve set their sights on BRCA+ and HBOC women, because the Supreme Court nullified Myriad’s patent on BRCA testing.

(BTW, If you’re interested in AstraZeneca’s unethical practices, check out Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues,  Samantha King’s Pink Ribbons, Inc., and Maren Klawiter’s The Biopolitcs of Breast Cancer –all of them are required BRCA+ bookshelf reading.)

BRCAware

BeBRCAware has got a glossy twitter account and hashtag. They play the social media game way better than Myriad Genetics.  I see prominent BRCA+ advocates following this twitter account. Maybe they’re simply hate-following it. I hate-follow Myriad Genetics’s twitter account so I can stay on top of their unethical shenanigans. But I also see BRCA+ advocates posting pictures of themselves in the BeBRCAware photobooth at the Joining FORCEs conference (my photo of it above) celebrating their BRCA+ pride. Do they really trust AstraZeneca? Do they even realize what it means that AstraZeneca is promoting this campaign?

The profit motive here is obvious: the more people “advocating” for genetic testing, the more women will consider it and seek it out. Consequently, profits for corporate genetics (for testing itself), the mammogram industry, and Big Pharma (for chemoprevention) will grow. Post-Angelina Effect, genetic testing for BRCA testing has doubled. There’s a lot of money to be made off of desperate women from cancer-prone families who suspect they have a BRCA mutation. Corporations are happy to pay for advocacy to get in on this BRCA testing goldmine. It’s capitalism, stupid.

Have we learned nothing from the Myriad Genetics patent fiasco? Corporate genetics is about profits, not patients. Sure, patients may benefit from genetic testing, but genetic corporations are not motivated by altruism. They’re motivated by profits. And the profit motive has historically held up advancements in BRCA+ and HBOC research that could literally save women’s lives (which is why we have the Free the Data movement)

I’m not saying that strategic alliances with corporations should be utterly verboten. However, if you allow a genetics corporation to “sponsor” your advocacy, then you are entering an ethical minefield, even if you’re transparent about it (which most people aren’t).

The BRCA+ community needs to have a discussion about the ethics of for-profit genetics companies paying for “advocacy”–AKA advertising–from individual advocates with high profile presences within BRCA+ social media.

If you are a BRCA+, HBOC, or cancer genetics blogger, tweeter, or advocate taking money or free trips or other perks from genetics corporations, then you need to be very up front about that. Otherwise, you’re not an advocate. You’re an undercover employee of a genetics company.

 

The BRCA+ Bookshelf

There are two books that lay out what the mutations are, what the risks are, and what the options for risk reduction are: Confronting Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Identify Your Risk, Understand Your Options, Change Your Destiny by Sue Friedman, Rebecca Sutphen, and Kathy Stielgo and Positive Results: Making the Best Decisions When You’re at High Risk for Breast or Ovarian Cancer by Joi Morris. If a BRCA+ woman decides to explore her surgical options, Kathy Stielgo’s The Breast Reconstruction Guidebook is priceless. These three books are required reading for BRCA+ women, and gene therapists should hand out copies of both these books to women who’ve just tested positive for a deleterious mutation (as opposed to the flimsy photocopied brochures featuring soft-focus women looking thoughtfully into the middle distance that I received with my results).

In addition to these informative medical books, there is a whole niche industry devoted to the BRCA+ memoir. I realize that many women find reading and writing these memoirs to be an emotionally satisfying experience. But I don’t. I’m not particularly interested in reading about individual women’s experiences of being BRCA+ in book form. There are many great BRCA+ blogs and youtube channels that detail individual experiences, and I’d rather read those. YMMV.

Instead, I’m looking for a big picture perspective on BRCA mutations. I want to know about the history of their discovery, about the scientists who found them, how they fit into the larger breast cancer medical industry and the history of breast cancer. I want to know what previous generations of women faced when they received a breast cancer diagnosis, how far we’ve come since then with medical advances, and how far we haven’t come since then. I want some hardcore cultural analysis of BRCA mutations, the risks women face, the environmental factors that contribute to growing rates of breast cancer, the surgeries available, and the pre- and post-surgery risky body. I want critical treatments of BRCA+ discourse and the BRCA+ community. And yes, I want to see feminist takedowns of the patriarchal medical industry as it relates specifically to high risk women. Whereas memoirs take an intimate look at the lives of women with mutations and their struggles, I want to contextual my own struggles within larger social, political, and economic spheres.

So far, my attempts to locate this sort of analysis haven’t fared well. Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health and Samantha King’s Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy take a good look at the many problems with pinkwashing and dominance of Komen in the breast cancer community. I recommend both of them. As far as history goes, Barron Lerner’s The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America did a really good of laying out the heartbreaking realities that women with breast cancer have faced in the United States since the late nineteenth-century, but the chapter on BRCA mutations and gene testing was off-putting (that’s a whole other post).

Maren Klawiter’s The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer: Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism is next on my To Read list. Other suggestions are very welcome.