Rose Kushner: breast cancer activism pioneer
If you’ve noticed that we seem to be awash in a sea of pink ribbons and ads for pink products these days, you probably realize that it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Not surprisingly, given our prominence as feminist leaders (and the higher incidence of breast cancer among women of Ashkenazi descent), Jewish women have played leading roles in breast cancer activism. The public attention to breast cancer today is largely due to the pioneering activism of journalist Rose Kushner (1929-1990).
When she found a lump in her breast in June 1974, Kushner used her journalism skills to help her deal with her illness and educated herself about breast cancer. Based on her extensive research, Kushner determined that she did not want to have the standard treatments. Rather than a one-step biopsy and mastectomy, she insisted that she wanted to receive the results of her biopsy and then make decisions about her treatment in consultation with specialists. Although this request now hardly sounds radical, in 1974 Kushner had a difficult time finding a surgeon who would agree to her terms – 19 turned her down! Kushner also wanted a modified radical mastectomy, rather than the more debilitating standard Halstead radical mastectomy – and had to travel from her home in Maryland to Buffalo, NY, to find a doctor willing to perform the surgery.
During her recuperation, Kushner began to transform her personal tragedy into a professional calling. Realizing that not all women with breast cancer had access to the resources she did, she wrote articles about breast cancer and the controversies surrounding its treatment. She also traveled to Europe to study breast cancer treatments there. Kushner compiled her research in Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report, which she first published in 1975.
Kushner quickly became a leading public educator on breast cancer. She founded a non-profit referral and information service, the Breast Cancer Advisory Center, and was also called to testify before Congress on numerous health and cancer topics. Kushner played an important role in making breast cancer a political issue, pushing for legislation that would give women choice in biopsy procedure, mandate informed consent, offer coverage of annual mammography by Medicare, regulate the use of radiation in mammograms, and make more money available for breast cancer research. In June 1977, Kushner was the only non-physician appointed to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel, which adopted her recommendation to make the two-stage biopsy standard procedure. Her work also played an important role in changing the accepted protocol from the Halstead radical mastectomy to the less extensive modified radical.
In June 1982, Kushner discovered a recurrence of her cancer. She continued to devote herself to breast cancer activism, speaking out against aggressive chemotherapy, serving on President Carter’s National Cancer Advisory Board, and helping to found the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations. Despite her fierce will and determined activism on behalf of breast cancer patients, Rose Kushner died of the disease on January 7, 1990.
The breast cancer movement has changed and grown since Kushner’s death, becoming more mainstream and attracting much corporate interest (for an interesting perspective on the corporatization of breast cancer activism, check out the Think before you Pink campaign by Breast Cancer Action). Kushner’s name has been largely forgotten in the sea of pink ribbons, but she remains an important model of how one individual used her own experience to create widespread policy change and a political framework for women’s health activism.
What can we do as Jewish women to carry forward Kushner’s legacy in raising breast cancer awareness?