Breast Cancer and the Blame Game

Posted on: April 18th, 2011 by

I’m tired.

Sick and tired, in fact, of the blame game when it comes to breast cancer. Society’s message goes something like this: if you are unlucky enough to get breast cancer, it’s your fault. If you triumph heroically over the disease, however, you’ve done something right to combat it.

In particular, the message from many in the media and misguided medical studies are loud and abrasively clear to us touched by breast cancer — we own our disease. This means we are to blame if we lose our battle and we are to be extolled as heroes if we defeat it.

Here are some myths that studies, media, and society tell us. These myths seem designed to silence and marginalize women in particular.

1. Breast cancer is the best kind of cancer to get because of its high cure rate. Actually, there is no cure for this disease. Even those who are seemingly cancer-free can get a recurrence at any time. By the way, even though I have had a preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction, doctors have said I still have a chance of recurrence. Huh?  Oh, and by the way, I watched my friend die of breast cancer, and I don’t think she would say that her cancer was the best one to get.

2. Early detection saves lives. Not always. If breast cancer is found before it spreads, one’s odds of survival are better, but not guaranteed. In fact, this “early detection” phrase puzzles me. What is early detection anyway?

3. Breast self-exams (BSE) are the be-all and end-all. I happened to find mine through BSE, but it was partially due to sheer luck. Some tumors cannot simply be found through BSE. Should we blame women for not finding their own tumors? How about blaming them for finding their tumors after the cancer has spread?

4. Mammography is always the gold standard for detecting breast cancer. Sure, mammograms find tumors in many women, but too many individuals are still falling through the cracks. If you have dense breast tissue, the chance of an accurate mammogram reading is slim at best. My breast tissue was so dense, that a mammography missed my tumor. Other diagnostic tools need to be available and widely used.

5. If one is eventually “breast cancer-free” — whatever that means — then it’s assumed the cancer treatments are responsible for that. Depending on the cancer grade and individual’s biochemistry, cancer can either spread or not. It’s common for some breast cancers to develop resistance to treatments.

How can we blame or exonerate women for a disease with so many random factors?
The following blame-games are general statements made in the guise of trying to help women understand why they get diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead they are designed to blame women for their disease.

1. We should’ve had children before the age of 35. I know way too many people in their 20s who have had children and then have had breast cancer.

2. Exercise and eating right will stave off breast cancer. While these are great lifestyle habits, they are no guarantees against getting breast cancer. I should know. Prior to my diagnosis, I was “fit” and ate right.

3. If we started menstruating earlier than later we are more at risk for cancer. Like this is useful information.

4. Breast cancer is sexy and cute and fem. Truth is, it’s ugly.

5. If one doesn’t have the BRCA gene(s) mutation, then one can’t get breast cancer. Like many, many people,  I have neither mutation, and I got this disease anyway.

What I find particularly interesting is that the blame game doesn’t seem to be pointing its fingers at those who get other types of cancer: testicular, uterine, ovarian, pancreatic, etc. There’s something about breast cancer that encourages the blame game.

Maybe it’s all because of the  sexualization of women’s breast cancer that make women with breast cancer subject to societal blame.

I’m tired — of those with breast cancer being further victimized by the blame game.


14 Responses to Breast Cancer and the Blame Game

  1. Anna Rachnel had this to say about that:

    Brilliant post Beth, and I think you really nailed it! If I read one more bogus study or see one more TV show with some idiot extolling the virtues of me eating three packages of blueberries a day, or some exotic nut from the Amazon jungle to ward off cancer, I think I might just explode. The myths really seem to have become fact now as far as our society is concerned. Just see what happens when you try and express dissent, and inject a little truth and common sense into any of the online debates. All of a sudden you find yourself labelled angry, bitter or some other psychological impediment. I’m sick of it too. Literally and physically. Breast cancer “fact”, diagnosis, treatment and indeed prognosis seems to be more and more based on popular conjecture rather than scientific research, and no one seems to have a problem with this. Our breast cancer organizations peddling conjecture in the form of “awareness” and “education” have a lot to answer for in my humble opinion.

  2. nancyspoint had this to say about that:

    Anna beat me to it, but I’ll say it anyway, this post is indeed brilliant. I, too, get so tired of the blame game. I am sick of blanket statments and headlines that say if you do such and such you can prevent cancer. I know they really mean we should just try to do what we can but… the implications are still there that somehow it’s our fault if we get cancer. And you’re right, breast cancer always seems like the easiest target. Thanks once again for stating your message so clearly and concisely.

  3. Murray had this to say about that:

    Very compelling post and extremely informative. This cleared up quite a few questions I had. Thank you.

  4. Jody had this to say about that:

    Great post, Beth

    In the popular culture breast cancer is distilled into one disease, one size fits all, when we all know differently. The biggest proven risk factors any more? Being a woman, getting older, and delayed child bearing.

    The problem is many of us don’t realize the distinctions until we are diagnosed. Post like yours will help fill the gaps.

    Thanks for this,

  5. Being Sarah had this to say about that:

    Excellent Beth. Very clearly stated. Thank you.

  6. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Anna, thank you for your comprehensive comment. I agree with you that if we dissent against society’s misconceptions, we are labeled as bitter and angry malcontents. Like you, I’m sick and tired of TV shows touting how we can all prevent cancer, when it’s all a big lie. If all these actions, foods, exercises, etc. could prevent cancer, we would have a cure.

  7. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Nancy, thank you for your kind words. I really agree with you on society’s blanket statements. It seems that the world is thinking less critically about these issues, when the scientific facts say otherwise.

    The blame game is one of my hot buttons in relation to breast cancer (or really any cancer). Women get blamed for their cancer, and this really angers me.

  8. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    Thank you for reading my posting and commenting. I really appreciate your readership.

  9. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    You are so right about breast cancer being considered one disease. The truth is, as we in the breast cancer world all know, that breast cancer is like a fingerprint — no two cancers are the same and no two treatments are exactly the same.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    Thank you for your reading and posting your comment. I really appreciate it and you!

  11. Kathi had this to say about that:

    We can’t state these truths enough, Beth. Thanks for writing our reality so clearly & concisely. Maybe if we all keep saying it over & over, the message will get through. We can only hope!

  12. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    Thank you for such nice words about my posting. I really appreciate your taking the time to read it and comment.

    Yes, unfortunately we need to repeat the message over and over and hopefully it will get through!

  13. Gayle Sulik had this to say about that:

    Love, love, love this Beth! May I republish this on Pink Ribbon Blues? It’s an excellent primer on the person-blame aspects of this disease. I’d like to see this as part of next year’s “awareness” materials!

  14. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Hi Gayle,

    Thank you for such kind words about this posting. Yes, this has been a hot button for me for a long time.

    Yes, you have my permission to republish this on Pink Ribbon Blues!

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