Breast (and) Cancer. 
Sexualisation as a Strategy of (De)tabuization of Illness

The female breasts were the object of male desire probably in every culture and in every time period. However, their function is not limited to being an erotic lure for a potential sexual partner. It can be even said that this is only one of their many functions, and not at all the most important one. Marilyn Yalom, in her book A History of the Breast (2012), explains what other meanings these two – biologically speaking – glands have. The functions she describes can be divided into those fulfilling women’s needs, or those fulfilling the needs of other breasts’ “users”, i.e. men, babies, society, nation, media, etc.

In modern culture, aesthetic and erotic value of the female breasts is dominant. Looking at them is supposed to be fascinating, arousing, and pleasant to the spectators. The breasts’ owners are aware of this fact and often consciously respond to societal demand by accentuating or revealing their breasts, and sometimes by enlarging them.

It can be claimed that culturally the essence of femininity has been inextricably linked to women’s mammary glands. There are obviously also other elements of body or appearance that are considered attractive in a woman, but it seems they can no longer be associated exclusively with femininity – long hair, slim legs and buttocks, neat hands, etc. are also attributes of many modern men. This is why breasts are seen as the main attribute of womanhood (although it may also change in time, since, due to so-called unhealthy lifestyle, including diet, obese men tend to “grow” breasts).

Contrary to appearances, not all female breasts attract equal interest; some may make (random) spectators feel disgusted or shocked. It can be said that there are some unofficial rules regulating their presence in the public space. Those that are in a way allowed to be “presented” or that deserve admiration cannot be: old, saggy, asymmetric, very small, feeding (with a baby latched to them), deformed or mutilated, e.g. surgically. So how did it happen that breasts suffering from cancer gained so much popularity in today’s (western) world?

It is worth noting that it did not happen all of a sudden, but has been happening gradually, since the 1930s. It was in 1936 when the American Society for the Prevention and Control of Cancer created Women’s Field Army (WFA), a voluntary organisation gathering healthy people who, by going door-to-door, encouraged women to have a palpation performed by a doctor (Gardner, 2006). It can be added that similar philanthropic and social activities were initiated more than a decade earlier by the Polish Anti-Cancer Committee (Supady, 2008).

Cancer evoked unequivocally negative and fearsome associations in the first half of the 20th century. Promotional materials distributed by the WFA volunteers were also based on such associations. In one of the brochures, there were two meaningful pictures contrasted with one another: on one side, there was a happy, presumably healthy woman, surrounded by children, who was examined early enough to be treated for breast cancer successfully (this one was described as wise), on the other side, there was a sad woman, lying in bed and dying alone, who neglected her “duty” (this one was described as stupid) (cf. Gardner 2006: 106). For a long time cancer was used to scare American women, but breasts themselves were not shown neither in medical publications nor in mass media materials, due to the prudishness of the American society. It was generally suggested that an oncological illness located in breasts is a threat to femininity, clearly understood in a traditional, patriarchal way.

In the initial period, health education was not at all concerned with early detection of breast cancer, which is a crucial issue of the modern media prevention of this illness. The topic of breast self-examination also was not raised publicly; it could be associated with a self-erotic activity and cause offence (Reagan, 1997). Therefore women were not instructed how to self-examine their breasts, but at the same time they were told to participate actively in breast cancer detection – paradoxical appeals, such as “Observe yourself but without unnecessary concern” started to appear in the media, as well as mentions of fictional characters who accidentally found a lump in their breasts while bathing or putting on shirt (Gardner 2006: 37-38).

Women were, in a way, denied the right to their own breasts; breasts – as an area of a potential cancer invasion – were monopolized by the doctors waiting for their patients (victims?) with a ready solution: mastectomy. Women were only expected to notice the symptoms and seek medical help as soon as possible. The recognition of mastectomy as a life-saving method, persistent in the medical world from 19th century until the 1980s (and even longer in Poland), was not at all consistent with the social attitudes towards the patients with removed breasts and the common beliefs about their lost femininity.

Surgical mutilation of women was a medical routine procedure for many decades. What is also important, not only was this “tradition” scientifically unjustified, it was even against the succeeding empirical outcomes. Moreover, surgeries were proceeded by practically no initial diagnostic tests, checking whether the “patient’s” lump is indeed a tumour. This is why it could happen that mastectomy was performed on women whose breasts had “only” fibrocystic changes. As a result of the fact that the doctors marginalized psychosocial needs of women and ignored their opinion, American feminists started to consider mastectomy as a tool of patriarchal oppression (cf. e.g. Altman, 1996). As a response to the perceived injustice and neglect, they started to encourage women to monitor the state of their breasts and to know their body in general (including finding pleasure in it). According to feminists, self-examination was supposed to protect women from unnecessary medical interventions and become an empowering activity (however, this idea was soon questioned, cf. e.g. Kline, 1999).

A scar left by a removed breast was stigmatised virtually until the 1980s and this is why it used to be hidden even from the closest people of a patient. Detabuization of the mutilation took place in two ways. A very personal and less mainstream voice is represented in the works of ill social activists, such as Deena Metzger, or artists, such as Jo Spence (cf. Bell, 2006), and in Poland e.g. the Amazon photography projects (cf. Zierkiewicz, Wechmann, 2016), or Krystyna Kofta’s drawings from the time of her illness (e.g. Zierkiewicz, Kowalczyk, 2007). The second way was formed by the changes occurring in the diagnostics and medical treatment, and by the introduction of products – both the specialised, intended for people treated for (breast) cancer, as well as any other product marked by a pink ribbon – connotating the cancer awareness and solidarity with the patients.

The pink ribbon logo has colonised social imagination and become a commonly recognized symbol of breast cancer, at the same time turning breast cancer survivors into local community or global media heroes. After around a decade it has turned out that using this logo entails significant problems, among which the most serious are secondary tabuization of illness and intrusive sexualisation of breast cancer (cf. e.g. King, 2006). In Poland, the awareness of the (negative) social consequences of the pink ribbon for the ill (including the Amazon movement activists) is slowly emerging, and not without problems. A commercial symbol attached to a bare, young and pretty female breast has become common in the Polish media and in leaflets concerning breast cancer prevention. Objectification of female body and sexualisation of illness do not offend practically anyone; quite the opposite – they are considered appropriate, even desired. Again, female breasts, even if mutilated (prosthetic) or threatened with illness, have to seem alluring and sexually attractive – cancer is just an episode that does not exempt from being feminine.

Dr. Edyta Zierkiewicz: Profesor at the Faculty of Pedagogy of the Wroclaw University. She is an author of articles and co-author of the books: “Życie od nowa / Life From The Beginning”, “Amazonki – moje życie / Amazones – My Life”



Altman Roberta, 1996, Waking up, fighting back. The politics of breast cancer, Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company.

Bell Susan E, 2006, Living with breast cancer in text and image: making art to make sense, Qualitative Research in Psychology, vol. 3. 

Gardner Kirsten E., 2006, Early detection. Women, cancer, and awareness campaigns in the twentieth century United States, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

King Samantha, 2006, Pink Ribbons, Inc. Breast cancer and the politics of philanthropy, Minneapolis, London: Minnesota University Press.

Kline Kimberly N., 1999, Reading and reforming breast self-examination discourse: Claiming missed opportunities for empowerment, Journal of Health Communication, vol. 4. 

Reagan Leslie J., 1997, Engendering the dread disease: Women, men, and cancer, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 87.

Supady Jerzy, 2008, Organizacje i instytucje onkologiczne w Polsce przed II wojną światową, Polskie Archiwum Medycyny Wewnętrzne, nr 118.

Yalom Marilyn, 2012, Historia kobiecych piersi [A History of the Breast], Warszawa: PTP

Zierkiewicz Edyta, Wechmann Krystyna, 2016, Życie od nowa. Społeczna zaangażowanie Amazonek – aktywnych pacjentek, Poznań: Federacja Stowarzyszeń Amazonki.

Zierkiewicz Edyta, Kowalczyk Izabela, 2007, Wypowiedzieć niepokój: o pracach Krystyny Kofty, w: Kobieta i (b)rak. Wizerunki raka piersi w kulturze, red. Edyta Zierkiewicz, Alina Łysak, Wrocław: MarMar.


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