I had great expectations of this book. With its provocative subtitle and the blurb stating that it was based on ten years of research, I thought it was really going to blow the lid off 'pink ribbon culture,' exposing all the things that were wrong with the 'cancer industry' and how it has 'pinkwashed' Americans -- especially American women -- into supporting breast cancer research through the use of pink ribbons. What I found instead was a book that was reasonably informative and interesting, but with a confusing array of concepts that never really coalesced into a coherent framework of analysis.
This book is long on description. I learned quite a bit about the various types of breast cancers and their relative rates of incidence. I also learned about the history of the various treatments developed over the past 30-40 years, and how those treatments have or haven't improved -- the results are mixed and subject to interpretation -- survival chances for women. Finally, I learned about the history of the breast cancer awareness movement and its troubled relationships with corporate funders and manufacturers (i.e., Big Pharma). All of this was presented in roughly the first half of the book.
Meanwhile, I was frustrated by the attempts of the author to analyze 'pink ribbon culture.' I do get that there's something unique about breast cancer that warrants a gender lens, but rather than situating pink ribbon culture into a feminist critique of culture more generally, the author tries to make a case that there's something uniquely insidious about a breast cancer culture that silences women's voices and limits their options. Women have been dealing with that for a long time in the home and the workplace; why should it surprise anyone that they confront it in the hospitals and doctors' offices? Yes, they have to deal with constraining and conflicting gender expectations, but they do that already, even in the best of health. And they are at least partly complicit in supporting this culture. After all, breast enhancement surgeries are among the most popular cosmetic procedures, and their popularity among women continues to rise.
The second half of the book is organized around the exploration of illustrative case material. The point I think the author was trying to make was that many women with breast cancer resist the model of the 'she-ro' presented to them by the culture, and that without a culture that validated and supported their experiences, this resistance made their lives and ordeals more difficult than they otherwise would have been. Fair enough. But how is that any different from *ANY OTHER* debilitating illness or condition or situation that women contend with? I kept looking for the angle that the breast cancer story is somehow different or unique from what women face more generally. Women have always had it harder than men. The takeaway seems to be that if we should expect to see true female empowerment anywhere in society, we should see it here, but we don't. The big charities and movement organizations sold out the grassroots by cozying up to partners with deep pockets -- partners who don't have women's interests at heart because they're not only profiting off the disease (e.g., by selling lucrative pharmaceuticals and expensive mammography units) but also often profiting off the products (i.e., chemicals, etc.) and the environmental conditions that increase the incidence of the disease in the first place. From this critical perspective, 'pink ribbon culture' serves to distract and co-opt the general public. And that's an important takeaway.
So in general, I'm glad I read this book, and I would encourage others to do the same, but I can't help but feel like it over-promised and under-delivered. The author's strongest contributions come from her big-picture, historical review in the first half. Her attempt in the second half to introduce individual case histories to illustrate her points fell a little flat for me. I realize, however, that that's precisely what many readers respond to the most powerfully. They want to see their own lives and stories -- or those of their loved ones -- represented in the pages, so I understand why the author wanted to include them, and why the editor/publisher allowed them to be included. I personally found them to be less insightful than I'd wanted them to be; they ended up taking away from what came before, not adding to it.
I close this review by expressing my biggest frustration. The author was not shy about identifying 'the bad guys', but I kept waiting for her to identify 'the good guys' -- those organizations most strongly committed to doing breast cancer awareness, research, and treatment in a way that truly empowers and respects all women. I'm still left to wonder whether there are any national or local breast cancer organizations that are 'doing it right'. It would be nice to direct our support toward them and away from the others.