Breasts are part of our bodies; they nourish our babies, give us pleasure, and even bring us pain, from bouts of mastitis to life-threatening cancer. This week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the incidence of advanced breast cancer has increased in young women ages 25 to 39, demonstrating a need for early detection in a group in which many members do not realize their risk. To fight this disease, we have to draw attention to it, and in order to do so, we have to be able to talk about breasts using the words we are the most comfortable using, the words that will best convey our feelings about cancer, and the words we believe will spread the message most effectively.
I am in the middle of reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a sobering look at cancer from a historical and personal perspective. In this book, Mukherjee gives the example of a breast cancer survivor’s unsuccessful attempt to place an advertisement in the New York Times for a breast cancer support group in the early 1950s. The Times informed her that they “cannot publish the word breast or the word cancer in its pages” and recommended that she “say there will be a meeting about diseases of the chest wall.”
While such outrageous censorship of supposedly “dirty” or “embarrassing” words is less common now than it was in the 1950s, it still exists to some degree, particularly in arenas related to adolescents and young adults.
For example, recently, we saw a group of researchers decry the use of mild profanity — including the word “boobs” — in adolescent literature (even for the age 14+ crowd), and just last week, I attended the oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in B.H. and K.M. v. Easton Area School District, a case stemming from a middle school’s ban on breast cancer awareness bracelets containing the word “boobies” (“I ♥ Boobies! (Keep A Breast)”). The Third Circuit, sitting en banc, will have to decide whether the word “boobies” as part of a breast cancer awareness campaign is lewd in a middle school setting and therefore unprotected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
If the Court allows the ban on the word “boobies” to stand, the ruling would send the message that breasts are taboo and a shameful part of our bodies. It would suggest that a school’s interest in preventing an immature response from a handful of adolescents to the term “boobies” is more important than young women’s ability to talk about their bodies and raise awareness about a disease that affects almost a quarter million new women each year.
Breast cancer awareness must start with young women. With more attention given to this disease among adolescents and young adults, the hope is that fewer of them will develop advanced breast cancer in their 20s and 30s. Silencing this speech only places women at risk.
*The bracelets are available through The Keep A Breast Foundation.