The Story of Rose Kushner, and What Breast Cancer Activism Looked Like Before the Pink Ribbon

Rose Kushner

That breast cancer today garners an impressive amount of social awareness is no accident; it is the result of decades of committed activism beginning in the 1970s, and was driven in large part by the spirit of the women’s liberation movement, in this report from TIME.

Until the 70s, breast cancer was an “unspeakable” condition that women experienced privately and silently, with shame rather than social support. It took the acts of individual women speaking out about cancer, as well as feminist organizing that targeted the relationship between female patients and the male-dominated medical establishment, for the issue to go public and become less stigmatized.

One of the first women to protest this standard of care was journalist Rose Kushner, who discovered she had a breast lump in 1974, at the age of 45.

Kushner insisted on a diagnostic biopsy followed by a modified mastectomy. “No man is going to make another impotent while he’s asleep without his permission, but there’s no hesitation if it’s a woman’s breast,” Kushner pointed out, echoing the reigning feminist position on sexist double standards in medicine. In 1975, she published Why Me? What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer to Save Her Life.

Kushner’s ideas were initially rejected by cancer experts – one called her book a “piece of garbage” – but over time they became common practice, as research proved that women with early-stage disease could safely conserve more of their breast tissue. Kushner was eventually appointed as the first member of the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Jimmy Carter.

Read more at TIME, and in this more detailed account.

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