Fighting with the Sky

Breast Implications #4: Environmental and Medical

Posted on: August 1, 2009

This part of the research initially started as looking at the medical implications of breasts, but as it progressed, it soon became clear that the environmental and medical implications of breasts were closely linked.


Since early mammals emerged from the womb, innately in search of their mothers’ nipples for nourishment, we have not ceased to look. More than simply a secondary sex organ, the breast places human beings in nature, symbolizes wisdom and sustenance, and unites women across culture, class, and race against its cancerous threat.

Why the breast?
“Females who are better at building up fat reserves initially (for menarche and first ovulation), and at maintaining them, will have higher reproductive success because of (a) a reproductive period which is longer because it begins earlier and (b) more reserves to convert to parental investment during pregnancy and especially during lactation.” Accumulation of fat in the buttocks and breasts “makes sense for an upright biped,” (Cant 201).

“In 1758, in the tenth edition of his Systema naturae, Carolus Linnaeus introduced the term Mammalia into zoological taxonomy. […] In so doing, he made the female mammae the icon of that class,” (Schiebinger 382). Although only about half of all mammals (females) have active mammary glands, Linnaeus reasoned, all mammals are nourished by their mothers’ milk.

At the time of this classification, scientific and medical renderings of the breast were closely linked with socio-political interest in enforcing women’s domestic roles. “The stress [Linnaeus] placed on the naturalness of a mother giving suck to her young reinforced the social movements undermining the public power of women and attaching a new value to mothering,” (Schiebinger 404), using science to legitimize the sexual division of labor.

Humans in Nature
“The notion that woman – lacking male perfections of mind and body – resides nearer the beast is an ancient one. Among all the organs of a woman’s body, her reproductive organs were considered most animal-like,” (Schiebinger 394). At the same time, the breast and its milk are considered meta-human, imparting sustenance, hope, and knowledge to its imbiber.

In the 18th century, male physicians displaced midwives and women practitioners, medicalizing the female body and the breast. Two hundred years later, as industrialization evolved into corporatization and crawled into bed with science, medicine, and socio-politics.

Behold: Breast Cancer
Since fatty tissue is more susceptible to fat-soluble carcinogens, the breast is especially vulnerable to carcinogens in the environment. “Women in the United States have a one-in-seven chance of developing breast cancer at some point in our lives,” (Boston Women’s Collective 106). Rates of breast cancer are significantly higher amongst women in industrialized countries, indicating environmental factors linked with industrialized life are largely responsible for causing breast cancer. “One half of all cancers are in the industrialized world, although only one-fifth of the population is located there,” (Eisenstein 78).

The biomedical model on which Western medical research – along with focusing on health-related issues affecting men and using mostly male subjects – is based is too narrow to effectively address cancer focusing on a cellular-or-smaller level of anaylsis and research. “Over thirty years ago, the World Health Organization concluded that 80 percent of cancers were due to ‘human produced carcinogens,’” (Eisenstein 72-3).

Yes, the most public attention, and a vast amount of moeny and resources, goes to testing for genetic predisposition to breast cancer, isolating the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes believed to cause breast cancer. However, only 5-10% of breast cancer cases are inherited, only half of which BRCA1 and BRCA2 are responsible (Kasper 251).

Furthermore, the biomedicine focuses on curing diseases rather than preventing them, causing a slash/burn/poision approach to treating breast cancer (mastectomy, radiation, and chemo therapy). Meanwhile, environmental factors – carcinogens in food, water, land, and air – go untreated. PCBs, vinyl chloride, and pesticides in the environment are know industrial carcinogens, but preventitive focus is place on tobacco control, being protected from the sun, and other “lifestyle” risks.

Women diagnosed with breast cancer also come up against socio-economic obstacles. “More than 30 percent of female-headed households live below the poverty line,” (Kasper 186-7). These women are much less likely to have access to health care, have less job security, live in environments with higher levels of carcinogens in water, air, land, and food, and have childen to support thorugh their disease.

Another obstacle is ethnic discrimination. In a study, “Latinas felt that they received inadequate care because their physicians failed to give them sufficient information about their diagnoses, spoke to them as if they were ignorant or not capable of understanding their circumstances, and did not treat them as partners in determining their courses of treatment,” (Kasper 199).

Preventative prescription drugs are misleading. Tamoxifen, for example, is highly marketed as “something you can do” to prevent breast cancer. Although the drug had only 2.7-1.4% effect in preventing breast cancer, it increased the risk of getting endometrial cancer 250% and blood clots and other life-threatening vascular events three-fold (Mayberry 267).

Corporate economic self-interest sets too much of the

context for breast cancer,” (Eisenstein 72). Pharmaceutical companies’ influence runs deep in biomedicine. Some of these companies also produce carcinogens. Zeneca, for example, who produces Tamoxifen, sponsors Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but “also produces acetochlor, a cancer-causing chlorine-based herbicide,” (Eisenstein 72).

In defense of our breasts!
Being a disease that affects mostly women, breast cancer, women’s experience of it, and solidarity that arose in the 1990s because of it, has been a force of enlightenment regarding gender biases and socio-economic factors influencing women’s expereinces as breast cancer patients. In a class-stratified world, “cancer is somewhat more democratic in that anyone can develop it,” (Eisenstein 75-6).

Breast cancer – due to its feminine nature, environmental causes, and social obstacles, and personal effect – is an ideal manifestation of the personal being the political. It is a reminder that we are all phsycial beings that can be broken, while at the same time creates unity and hope. “Breast cancer speaks danger while a breast can resonate nurturance, sexuality, and resistence,” (Eisenstein 135).


The goals of this section of the zine and our research was to show how the breast is placed within the environment as well as how that environment affects the breast. While there is always more research to be done, I think that this section provides a fairly thorough overview of these goals.


Works Cited
Boston Women’s Health Collective. “Environmental and Occupational Health.” Our Bodies, Ourselves. 1984. Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2005. 96-117.
Cant, John G. J. “Hypothesis of the Evolution of Human Breasts and Buttocks.” The American Naturalist. Vol. 117, No. 2 (Feb 1981). 199-204.
Eisenstein, Zillah. Manmade Breast Cancer. Cornell Universtiy, 2001.
Kasper, Anne S., and Ferguson, Susan J. Breast Cancer. Anne S. Kasper & Susan J. Ferguson, 2000.
Kheiftets, Leeka I., and Matkin, C. Chantal. “Industrialization, Electromagnetic Fields, and Breast Cancer Risk.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 107, Supplement 1: Reviews in Environmental Health, 1999. 145-154.
Mayberry, Maralee; Subramaniam, Banu; Weasel, Lisa H. Feminist Science Studies. Routledge, 2001.
Schiebinger, Londa. “Why Mammals are called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth Century Natural History.” The American Historical Review. Vol. 98, No. 2, April 1993. 382-411.


1 Response to "Breast Implications #4: Environmental and Medical"

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.Betty

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