Take Cover!

By Cynthia Ryan

Take Cover!

Are we surviving popular magazine portrayals of breast cancer?

By Cynthia Ryan

When diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, I turned to friends, survivors, and well, the media, for support. At 29, I was an expert at scanning magazine covers lining the grocery checkout aisle for the latest in fashion, relationships and stress management. Why not look to them for breast cancer news?

Perhaps serendipitously, my breast cancer diagnosis coincided with a media revolution of sorts. Beginning in the early 1990s, breast cancer activists from the fashion and beauty industries, including such well-known figures as Ralph Lauren and Evelyn Lauder, united with survivors to address the disease. Suddenly, first-person accounts of breast cancer, reports on promising medical research, and most of all, awareness campaigns saturated newsstands.

I have no doubt that this media attention has drastically altered how society perceives breast cancer, how readily we receive emotional and financial support, and how hopeful many of us feel about the progress of cancer research. But as women’s magazines have expanded the breast cancer conversation to offer more innovative, enticing perspectives on the disease, are their messages accurately representing our community and our cause? I set out to explore these questions by examining the themes in several women’s glossies from October 2007, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

We're Forging Ahead
In magazine stories about breast cancer, current medical knowledge is portrayed as more advanced and accessible than ever before. Consider three cover lines last October:

“Breast Cancer UPDATE: The Latest Advances & the Most Promising Treatments” (Vogue)

“A Save-Your-Life Breast Cancer Guide: Best New Screening Tests, Ways to Afford Top-Notch Care, Survivors Who Beat the Odds” (Ladies’ Home Journal)

“The Good News About Breast Cancer: What YOU Can Do to Save Your Life” (Shape)

How accurate are these proclamations? Certainly, we’ve made strides in understanding breast cancer. Women have a variety of new treatment options, and researchers are increasingly uncovering new clues about the disease.

But a look back reveals similar headlines more than a decade-and-a-half ago. For example, in 1991, Self magazine announced its first annual breast cancer report with the cover line “Cancer-Cure Report: Saving Your Breasts: New treatments, new hope.” Inside, readers are told that “Given the current state of detection and treatment, ‘more women should be cured of breast cancer,’ ” drawing on the words of a breast cancer specialist.

I wonder if this emphasis on the disease being more manageable than ever confuses readers more than it clarifies the current state of knowledge and technology. As survivors know, even the “latest advances” that take us forward one step—in our own treatment or in researchers’ understanding of the disease—may be followed by a pace or two backward.

The Ending Is What Counts
Repeatedly, magazines present breast cancer narratives that demonstrate clear win-or-lose outcomes. Glamour includes in its October issue an article titled, “Two Sisters With Breast Cancer. One Made It. One Didn’t.” Readers are drawn into the tale of Norma, diagnosed in the mid-1990s, and Apryl, diagnosed in 2004.

The article presents approaches to detecting and treating the disease in each decade, yet the focus remains on Norma’s eventual death and Apryl’s survival three years after diagnosis. Readers are told that post-diagnosis, Apryl “pull[s] all of Norma’s medical records, spread[s] them out and make[s] a diagnosis-to-death time line.” Apryl’s goal is to act “more quickly than Norma had” and “survive.”

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