A medical colleague recently did a spot check on my current affairs with the following question, “Have you heard about Angelina?” I had. “Then you are not a complete hermit.”
Amid the daily updates on civil war and suburban conflicts, Angie’s boobs have hit the literal buzzer around the world whatever your social circle.
While the expected anti-scientific movement within the homeopathic extreme left gathered ranks to roll out their views on the “GRAND medical deception” played on this “poor woman”, I was surprised to read the views of some authors also feminists from developing countries managing to paint this news as some modern patriarchal misogynistic conspiracy into female mutilation.
Anyone involved with any fundraising / charity / research group knows that getting the media and public attention for certain causes is difficult, even with the significant attention that conditions such as breast cancer currently have. It is a constant struggle to raise public awareness and research funds for these issues.
Cancer of the breast is a classic example, not just because it is such a mainstream symbol of being “female”, but more so because its objective discussion and examination has been such a taboo for centuries around the globe.
Today even in the West, I have seen countless (educated) women who have presented with large fungating tumour masses on a breast that has been growing, ulcerating, causing pain for many months. This is in Australia, in large specialty hospitals.
It is only in the past few decades that female specific conditions have started to get research dollars and public interest as more and more open dialogues have started on this very important but hidden subject.
Similarly with cervical cancer, a condition that was once only diagnosed at such advanced stages due to so many women being unable to seek timely medical attention. Only one or two generations ago our over-reproductive grand mothers were suffering from prolapsed uteruses, and severe urinary and faecal incontinence from the lack of timely surgical and medical help.
The HPV vaccine has been a very important breakthrough in reducing cervical cancer risks, despite the significant backlash from conservative groups that such a vaccine would promote promiscuity, in the same way they held back sex education in schools for decades. We don’t talk about the “health” of these body parts, we talk only of their “uses” in our mainstream conversations, but slowly this is changing.
Whether it is mastectomy or hysterectomy there are countless generations of women who have suffered in silence and shame, and these are just a few of the myriad number of other health problems that affect women.
I agree Angie’s breasts are no more important than any other woman’s, however I am very glad to see that her high profile as an actress has raised awareness of a condition that medicine still has limited treatment options for. There is no “cure” for breast cancer, only risk reduction, ESPECIALLY in women who carry the gene known as BRCA, (the moment we hear about this alarm bells are ringing in our heads!)
As a result of growing knowledge from research and genetic breakthroughs we have seen commendable and committed volunteer groups raising awareness and research funds for Breast Cancer, from pink ribbon day, to regular marathons. Many lay people, in Australia especially, are aware of the risks of breast cancer purely from the media information that has filtered through, and are much more vigilant in terms of their own health and those of their female friends and relatives. While targeted therapies are in early stages for this condition, especially at a genetic level, there has been recent conflict between the scientific and pharmaceutical companies regarding the patenting of genes, such as the BRCA.
The argument from the companies to patent such genes is based on the concept of “returns” in exchange for research funding they provide. Those in the scientific and public community, however, are fighting with a more valid and altruistic point in that human tissue should not be patentable, and be public property for the benefit of all. This is not a new philanthropic idea, Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) the inventor of the first Polio vaccine was once asked:
“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?”
He replied: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
To this day the WHO funded vaccination schemes in developing nations is free, yet we still see a plethora of misleading articles on the “capitalistic conspiracy” that is behind vaccination programs.
Ideological backlash to medical treatments is not a new issue. Only recently we saw the arbitrary killing of UN health workers who were implementing a vaccination program, by the Pakistani Taliban who saw it as a Western capitalistic conspiracy. Even in the developed world there is ongoing debate and dissent within parent groups who actively refuse vaccination for their children based on information that has time again been proven incorrect. Yet, it is these very same parents who depend on the vaccinated communities herd immunity to protect their child, and will also expect first grade medical attention when their child is unwell from a very preventable illness; the recent measles outbreak in the US is a case in point.
The very same logic is being applied to Angie’s double mastectomy, a cruel irony when many of the authors themselves originate from developing nations where so little of medical care is able to trickle through to those that need it the most.
In Angie’’s case she opted for a double mastectomy. She could have waited for potential breakthroughs in treatment in the future, that might be available if and when she developed breast cancer, or she could act now based on what we know from studies on her actual chance of developing cancer in the future. No one will want to play Russian Roulette with their health no matter how promising the future may look. In reply to many articles comparing this as “should I cut of my head in case I develop a brain tumour”, I am afraid their grasp on even basic biology must be poor to think that the breast is comparable to the brain.
Yes, mastectomy is a drastic solution, but we have nothing better currently in terms of significant prevention in BRCA positive women, and women do make that informed choice. In terms of reconstructive surgery, it cannot heal the psychological impact in everyone completely. Many women prefer to have some degree of reconstruction if possible, for many personal reasons, and yes to regain some degree of normalcy.
We may paint the breast with many nurturing and erotic roles, but are we not joining the public in criticising women who decide to have a reconstruction?Are we not saying to her that “oh well you’re not sexy, you’re not nurturing, and oh you should be judged badly if you want your own breast back”? Surely this is the choice and autonomy of the women in question, and not that of the authors and commentators? Many women don’t have reconstruction and carry their Amazonian scars boldly, others choose differently. Merely painting these choices as vanity or as societal influences is too simplistic a view.
Interestingly did we see as much backlash against the “medicalization of women’s bodies” when the well-known Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath started a charity fund in name of his wife who died of Breast Cancer.
Let us look at some important conditions that are equally hidden and taboo, prostate cancer in men. There is still an ongoing battle in improving the awareness and diagnosis of this often-silent disease. Do we brand every celebrity and sports ambassador who champions this cause as some medical puppet championing the cause of patriarchy, capitalism?
So why is Angelina’s move drumming up such sensational misinformed shock jock type reactions? Is it because of the surgery itself, the reconstruction post, or that she made this decision after being informed of her risks from her genetic heritage.
But the outcry is not so much on the latter, but on the “barbaric” nature of the procedure. As much as many in the feminist camp would dislike to think breasts as one of their only defining feature, the loss / removal of these, still prompts a strong reaction. The scientific and medical world is currently being demonized as the perpetrator of misinformation for scare mongering the public, without careful understanding or research into the circumstances. The decision to have a double mastectomy is not one of narcissism or vanity, unlike many “enhancing” surgeries; these procedures are carried out as a therapy, a treatment. If we truly wish to discuss the “capitalist agenda” on women’s bodies, why not spotlight the barriers to reproductive control and contraception, the growing surrogacy business in developing worlds, the cosmetic enhancement industry, and lets not forget the booming life insurance industry that truly does capitalize on fear of the unknown!
Those on the band wagon calling for “anti-medicalisation of the female body” from Angie’s story are speaking from a very hollow platform. This is evident from their ignorance about the battles that are being fought everyday by people who are diagnosed with conditions that we still, despite significant advances, have very limited treatment options for. We are only starting to uncover the myriad genetic factors that come to play in predisposing people to diseases such as cancer, and while direct effective gene based treatments are still decades away, there are some ways of reducing the risk in those particularly susceptible.
The public who read these misinformed, ideologically driven articles will either, take it all on board, or having experienced the sickness of a loved one and knowing the pain of opportunities missed, will realize these knee jerk reactions for what they are. There is so much left to do still, we are only just beginning.