October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month
"We have to stop being nice girls and start fighting as if our lives depend on it, because they do."
– Jackie Winnow
A generation ago, the words "breast cancer" were rarely uttered above a whisper. Today, it is no longer a secret or shameful diagnosis. Pink ribbons everywhere attest to the public attention focused on this disease that strikes 1 in 8 women in the United States.
We have many Jewish women to thank for this transformation. First among them is Rose Kushner (1929-1990), a pioneer in breast cancer activism. When she found a lump in her breast, Kushner used her journalism skills to help her deal with her illness and to educate herself about breast cancer. Realizing that not all women had access to the resources she did, she wrote articles about breast cancer and the controversies surrounding its treatment. Kushner compiled her research in Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report (1975). She also founded a non-profit referral and information service, the Breast Cancer Advisory Center, and was called to testify before Congress on numerous health and cancer topics. Even after a recurrence of her cancer in 1982, Kushner 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.
Like Rose Kushner, Jackie Winnow (1947 – 1991) faced her breast cancer diagnosis by putting her professional skills to work. A community organizer and lifelong activist on GLBT, health, and human rights issues, Winnow quickly realized that women with cancer had few resources for information, support, and advocacy. In 1986, she founded the Women's Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California – the first center of its kind in the U.S.
In her professional life, Judi Hirshfield-Bartek is an oncology nurse specializing in breast care. After hours, she is a tireless and effective breast cancer activist, lobbying and advocating for issues including greater funding for breast cancer research and protection against genetic discrimination for carriers of breast cancer genetic mutations. She is a founding member of the Jewish Women's Coalition on Breast Cancer.
Like many women, the writer Deena Metzger describes her breast cancer experience as transformative. In powerful prose, she has explored her experience of healing and of becoming a healer. She also helped demystify and celebrate the post-mastectomy body, posing naked and joyful for the photograph that has come to be known as the "Warrior."
We still have far to go in the fight against breast cancer. But we are grateful to the women who have led the way in speaking out about their disease, creating support networks for women with breast cancer and their families, educating others, and advocating for better treatment, rights, and research. As Deena Metzger writes, "Illness offers us the ability to heal our bodies, our lives, and the world as well."
Listen to Judy Hirshfield-Bartek talk about her path to activism.
See also Judith Rosenbaum's blog post on Rose Kushner.
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