Was My BRCA Mastectomy & Breast Reconstruction a Betrayal of Feminism?

Lizzie Stark, at age 27 found to carry a harmful mutation in her BRCA-1 gene, and with a lengthy family history of breast cancer – “my mother, my grandmother and my grandmothers’ two sisters breast cancer in their early 30s” – and author of Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree, writes in The Washington Post:

Until I had doctors remove my breasts and rebuild them again, I was a feminist who never saw herself as particularly feminine. Since then, I’ve questioned my feminist cred and tossed out my jeans in favor of dresses…

The feminist in me is uncomfortable with the idea that I’ve already altered my body to fit a certain standard of beauty. I don’t like that the only function of my chest is now to please the eye of the beholder, although to be fair, sometimes that beholder is just me.

At the same time, it’s probably good that reconstruction has made me more aware of my vanity and insecurity, robbed me of my moral superiority, and forced me to think about, and accept, who I really am.

As she began researching a book on breast cancer genes, Ms. Stark learned:

She had volunteered for a surgery honed in the 1890s, a period when medicine was pretty blasé about cutting out women’s body parts and internal organs… A few decades later, women with lumpy breasts were subjected to preventative mastectomies on the mistaken assumption that lumpy breasts raise cancer risk…

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the activism of women such as journalist and breast cancer patient Rose Kushner began a movement toward less disfiguring approaches. These activists objected to the practice of doing biopsies and mastectomies in a single surgery — without waiting for patients to wake up from anesthesia so they could hear their biopsy results and weigh their options. And they questioned the assumptions of doctors and researchers.

They were right: By the early 1980s, lumpectomy plus radiation had been shown to work just as well as radical mastectomy in treating cancer.

Read Lizzie Stark’s fuller story of personal experience and a century of breast cancer history in The Washington Post.

[Illustration Credit: Neil Webb, for The Washington Post]

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