The Breast Cancer Wars: Fear, Hope And Pursuit Of A Cure In 20th Century America

New York, NY – May 16, 2001 – America has become intimately familiar with the symbols of breast cancer: pink ribbons, survivor testimonials, and Races for the Cure. But why have we chosen to wage such a fierce battle against this disease? Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Angelica Berrie Gold Foundation Associate Professor at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, spent five years looking for an answer. Dr. Lerner studied thousands of documents written by doctors, researchers, and women with breast cancer and discovered not only a history of breast cancer but how American culture understands and treats disease. His book is titled “The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth Century America” (Oxford University Press, May 2001). “Breast cancer contains all of the elements that make us want to go to war against disease,” says Dr. Lerner. “It is extremely common, women fear it more than any other disease, and it affects the breast, which raises issues of sexuality and intimacy.” Dr. Lerner believes that there are pros and cons to declaring war on breast cancer. “On the one hand, the language of battle is very empowering for women with the disease,” he states. “On the other hand, war metaphors also may raise expectations unrealistically and lead us to blame women who ‘lose’ the battle.” Dr. Lerner adds that he wrote “The Breast Cancer Wars” as a physician, historian, and son. His mother developed breast cancer in the 1970s. Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons has played a major role in the history of breast cancer. Among the Columbia faculty discussed by Dr. Lerner are Arthur Purdy Stout, a pioneer in surgical pathology; Cushman Haagensen, the renowned and controversial surgeon who championed Halsted’s radical mastectomy; and Hugh Auchincloss, who was among the first surgeons to call for less disfiguring breast operations. Written with a physician’s ability to explain medical details and a historian’s ability to tell a compelling story, Dr. Lerner discusses such topics as the rise of radical surgery, feminist opposition to medical paternalism in the 1970s, and current debates over early breast cancer detection, genetic testing, and stem cell transplantation. “In a sense, our earlier faith that medicine could eradicate cancer and other diseases has been replaced by a faith that we can objectively evaluate medical interventions and give our patients definitive answers,” says Dr. Lerner. “I have great faith that individual women can make the appropriate decisions that reflect their personal beliefs and life situations. As I say in the book, women need not make the right decision, just the right decisions for themselves.”

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Arthur Purdy Stout, Cushman Haagensen, Hugh Auchincloss, Physicians Surgeons