Updated: Feb 27, 2021
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to an end, it is worth observing some of the misconceptions surrounding the disease. As of January 2020, there are more than 3.5 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. Many of us have grown up hearing information about breast cancer through our medical care providers and in the media. We understand that breast cancer is a serious disease in which uncontrollable cell division occurs to the cells of the breasts. We may also be aware of risk factors including age, genetics, race, ethnicity, and menstrual and breastfeeding history. However, we may not have explored how traditional notions of femininity and masculinity have detrimental consequences for men and women alike when it comes to breast cancer. In addition, in an age of mass information available on the internet, we may not realize the importance of staying up-to-date with the most recent medically-approved guidelines in terms of breast cancer awareness.
Across time and various societies, there has been a notion that a woman’s appearance is tied to her worth. Specifically, breasts have long been considered as an ideal of femininity, and the idea of a woman with large breasts and an hourglass figure has been held as the ideal body type. This gender stereotype has implications for women who have breast cancer. Studies show that for many women, long after breast cancer treatment, they struggle with body image and self-esteem issues. For women who have mastectomies, the surgery can cause a feeling of disfigurement and the notion that without her breasts, she is somehow “less” of a woman. Even for women who do not opt for full breast removal, bodily changes due to chemotherapy can lead to struggles with body image. In South Asian cultures, long, silky hair is still upheld as the epitome of femininity. For breast cancer survivors who have experienced hair loss due to chemotherapy, this notion of hair being tied to womanhood can have harmful effects. To help address this long-term health effect for many breast cancer survivors, researchers have developed a program called Restoring Body Image After Cancer (ReBIC). ReBIC is a group therapy program that uses guided imagery to improve body image and overall quality of life in breast cancer survivors. One study showed that women who participated in ReBIC reported less distress about their body image and had less body stigma. Understanding the mental health effects of breast cancer survivors is important for us all. Many of us know someone who had or has breast cancer, and while we might be naturally inclined to care for our loved ones’ physical health when it comes to this disease, we must also remember the emotional health toll it can take, as well. If we know women who have survived breast cancer, it is imperative for us all to make sure they are getting the mental health support they need.
While we often discuss breast cancer as a women’s disease, men can be diagnosed as well, albeit at lower rates than women. Nonetheless, the gendered idea that men can not get breast cancer has harmful consequences for men who are diagnosed with the disease. In a 2010 study at the University of Colorado Denver, the researcher found that 43% of men would feel their masculinity was questioned if they were diagnosed with breast cancer. The same study also showed that 80% of men surveyed were not aware that men could develop breast cancer. It is evident that this stereotype of men being immune to breast cancer can prevent men from getting medical advice at an early stage, which is crucial in cancer treatment. On a micro-level, the onus is on us all to stop referring to breast cancer as a woman’s disease. If a male loved one mentions any potential breast cancer symptoms, we must urge him to take them seriously and seek medical care. On a macro-level, researchers have called for the development of more gender-neutral information material about breast cancer. Such gender-neutral language can help to lessen the misconceptions around and stigmatization of breast cancer in men.
Along with understanding the gender notions intertwined in the conversation about breast cancer, there is also a need to think critically about the information we are processing when it comes to this disease. In the digital age, one can search a question on Google and receive millions of search results at their fingertip. In addition to sites like WebMD and MayoClinic, people can also crowdsource advice from forums like Reddit. The advantage of the digital revolution is that information has become more accessible. However, the flip side of this accessibility is that we are not vigilant, we may not be properly understanding the most recent and trusted health advice. For instance, many of us may have grown up hearing that monthly breast exams are essential. However, recent guidelines put into place since October of 2015 by the American Cancer Society clearly state that self-breast exams or exams conducted by a medical provider are no longer recommended. This is because such exams can result in health scares, where patients do the self-exam and find lumps, resulting in panic and anxiety over bumps that may not be cancerous. During a recent physician’s visit, my primary care provider also recommended against self-conducted breast exams for this same reason — she realizes they cause more anxiety in many patients and are not very helpful. Due to the mass of information available, I had not known that this was no longer a guideline. To me, the encounter highlighted the importance of regular professional medical care. It also reminded me to take every piece of health advice I read on the internet with a critical eye.
Breast cancer is a disease that, unfortunately, has touched many of us personally. While we may think we know a lot about it, we often do not think about the gendered notions that come into play, and it can be hard to keep up with rapidly evolving information. Yet, while scientists work hard to find a cure, it’s our job to stay informed about breast cancer and ensure we and our loved ones seek the proper care.