Changing Breast Cancer Stigmas

Photo by Stephanie Moreno/Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications for Peabody Awards/University of Georgia

Julia Louis-Dreyfus recently announced that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The Emmy Award-winning actress took to Twitter to share the sad news. “1 in 8 women get breast cancer. Today, I’m the one,” Louis-Dreyfus wrote.

The 56-year old actress went on to say, “The good news is that I have the most glorious group of supportive and caring family and friends, and fantastic insurance through my union. The bad news is that not all women are so lucky, so let’s fight all cancers and make universal healthcare a reality.” The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Louis-Dreyfus received the diagnosis on September 18, just one day after taking home an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Since her announcement, Louis-Dreyfus has received an outpouring of support and well wishes. In less than a day, her tweet received over 300,000 likes. There were also words of encouragement from fellow celebs Christina Applegate and Rosie O’Donnell. Applegate learned she had breast cancer in 2008 and had a double mastectomy shortly after the discovery. Louis-Dreyfus has not yet announced the severity of the cancer or how advanced it is, but hopefully with her support system, both public and private, and proper treatment, the actress will make a full recovery.

The strong support garnered by Louis-Dreyfus shows how far we have come as a society in raising awareness for this disease. Breast cancer was not always something people talked about and there was a time, not so long ago, when the actress’ announcement would not have been received as the brave act that it was. Breast cancer specialist Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center told USA Today, “I remember in the ’80s when I couldn’t say the word ‘breast’ in a public meeting. If there were men in the audience, I had to say ‘mammary gland.'” Breast cancer was spoken about in hushed whispers and its victims all too often were shunned. Women suffering from breast cancer faced debilitating stigmas in their search for care.

So, how did breast cancer evolve from a dirty little secret to the pink ribbon awareness we see today? Part of the reason for the visibility of the disease is the same reason it was once stigmatized: breasts. They are not only a symbol of sex in our society, but also a symbol of nurturing and sustenance. Cultural shifts and feminist activity have turned breast cancer into a universal cause. In 1974, first lady Betty Ford announced that she had breast cancer. This was unheard of for the time.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation have helped turn the disease into a collective concern. When celebrities such as Applegate and Louis-Dreyfus share their stories, it continues to bring the issue to the forefront and raise awareness of this blight that can so tragically impact all women and those who love them.


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