Book Reviews


Review of “Hospital Land USA: Sociological Adventures in Medicalization” by Wendy Simonds

Breast Cancer Consortium Dec. 14, 2016.

Death is certain. Time of death is not. But in Hospital Land USA, the other S&M (Science and Medicine) as Wendy Simonds calls it, death is a failure, something to be suspended and avoided at whatever cost. And there is no safe word. The surreal ordinariness of it all – from appointments and forms to waiting rooms, scripts, and winning advertorials; exams and tests to bills, claims, and satisfaction surveys; sighs of good news to the emotional rollercoaster of risks, harms, hopes, and uncertainties – reduces individuals to a collection of body parts to be increasingly scrutinized and managed. Biomedical advances contribute to longer life spans for some along with, almost inevitably, a supramedicalized state that involves constant evaluation, intervention, and the nearly obsessive management of risk, susceptibility, enhancements, and a broader range of conditions than ever before. The curing and caring that co-exists in this medicalized space too often fails to account for the suffering involved in caring for the sick and the old. Highly recommended.

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Review of “Hiding Politics in Plain Sight: Cause Marketing, Corporate Influence, and Breast Cancer Policymaking” by Patricia Strach

Breast Cancer Consortium Nov. 1, 2016.

Hiding Politics in Plain Sight examines the politics of market mechanisms–especially cause marketing–as a strategy for public policy change. Taking breast cancer as a case, Patricia Strach skillfully contextualizes pink ribbon culture and shows how its cause marketing (and cause marketing in general) overly simplifies solutions to complicated social problems. The process of transforming advocacy into highly individualized, easily marketable products and services permeates how people (including policy makers) think about these issues, thereby limiting rather than expanding the mechanisms through which advocacy may operate. Since there is little data on cause marketing as an industry-wide phenomenon, who participates in it, and what it achieves (positive and negative), this important book makes an original and useful contribution to the literature and to a broader understanding of commercial influence on advocacy.

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Review of “Reading & Writing Cancer: How Words Heal” by Susan Gubar

Breast Cancer Consortium Sep. 30, 2016.

“For those who survive and those who do not.” That is the dedication Susan Gubar gives to her new book, Reading & Writing Cancer. The straight-forward acknowledgement that some people with cancer survive and others do not, suggests instantly that this book is not be about drippy cancer stories floating rhetoric of overzealous cheerfulness and inspiring self-promotion. This book is about the power of words to help people make sense of incomprehensible and terrible experiences. Diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2008, Gubar underwent three abdominal surgeries, three cycles of chemotherapies, radiological procedures, and other conventional medical regimens. Knowing she had an incurable disease, she went into a Phase I clinical trial in 2012. A year later she published Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer in 2013. She also writes The New York Times blog Living With Cancer. Much of the literature explored in this book, however, strives to understand the human condition of suffering and illness. Just as the readers and viewers of those texts do. In sharing aspects of such representations, readers get to see how people handle the often drawn out experiences of sickness and death-in-proximity.

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COVERReview of “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book” by Susan Love, MD

Breast Cancer Consortium Oct. 11, 2015.

About every five years, Dr. Susan Love MD, MBA fully revises and updates her comprehensive yet accessible book on breast cancer, Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. Now in its 6th edition, the book continually reflects ongoing changes in scientific and clinical understandings of breast cancer and relies on the most current information to help readers to make sense of the mountains of information, sometimes conflicting, about this disease and its treatment. This latest edition of the Breast Book easily retains its New York Times status as “the bible for women with breast cancer.” But like all sacred texts, it won’t provide the definitive answers to all of our questions. At 690 pages including resources, notes, glossary, and index, there is simply too much research to distill for any given breast cancer topic. What this book provides is Breast Cancer 101–the necessary foundation and springboard for understanding the fundamentals of breast cancer and treatment. It is extensive, readable, well-organized, and contains solid references. Armed with the knowledge, background, and questions raised in this book, anyone would be equipped to enter the zone of medical uncertainty surrounding breast cancer to ask more questions, get more answers, and learn what they need to know to make the decisions that are right for them.

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Review of “Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics” by Miriam Engelberg

Breast Cancer Consortium Nov. 12, 2015.

Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, published in 2006, is a collection of short comic strips that deal with varied aspects of her cancer experience. From the awkwardness of post-diagnosis “social niceties” to the realities of nausea and baldness, to existential questioning, despair and isolation, to the mind-numbing effects of daytime TV, the graphic memoir provides a humorous and enlightening counter-narrative to upbeat survivorship culture. In other words, it isn’t oozing in inspiration, triumph, and personal transformation. That said, it isn’t a bummer either. Engelberg’s book is smart, funny, and irreverent while the rough lines, basic colors, and messy drawings simultaneously reflect a deeper message of truth, personal struggle, and limited time. Engleberg died just a few months after her book was published.

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Hesse-Biber COVERReview of “Waiting for Cancer to Come” by Sharlene Hesse-Biber

Gender & Society 2015; Excerpted on Psychology Today Jan. 9, 2015.

Sharlene Hesse-Biber’s new book Waiting for Cancer to Come offers insight into the complexity of living in a genomic age. She tells the stories of women at higher than average risk for breast and ovarian cancer due to genetic mutations, interviewing 64 women who tested positive for mutations on the so-called breast cancer (BRCA) genes (known to increase overall lifetime risk of breast cancer in women and men in addition to ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, and testicular cancers). The author shares detailed accounts of how women prepared for genetic testing, made sense of the results, and made decisions about what to do with the information and cope with the aftermath. The book demonstrates that while there is clearly a place for genetic testing for personal and clinical decision-making, the lack of clear evidence about what genomic findings mean for the development, progression, and treatment of certain diseases suggests that those decisions will remain uncertain.

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Leopold CoverReview of “My Soul Is Among Lions” by Ellen Leopold

Breast Cancer Consortium May 2014.

Ellen Leopold’s unique collection of essays over a 20-year period (many of them written before there was an audience ready to receive them) illustrates important shifts in the medical and social history of breast cancer. She skillfully threads her way through the writings of impactful women and the contexts in which they lived, chronicling the personal and social consequences of challenging the existing state of affairs — one that is now steeped in mass media and corporate interests. Leopold begins with stories of Katharine Lee Bates, memoirist (1859-1929) and her partner Katharine Coman, economic historian (1857-1915); Janet Lane-Claypon, epidemiologist (1877-1967); Irma Natanson, plaintiff (1920-1989); and Ruth Handler, inventor (1916-2002); all agents of change in their own right. The second part of the book focuses on the more recent changes in the visibility of breast cancer, resulting from mass media and commercialization. My Soul is Among Lions not only adds to the historical record, it shows how countervailing voices have always been, and continue to be, at the center of meaningful change.

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Sikka CoverReview of “A Breast Cancer Alphabet” by Madhulika Sikka

Breast Cancer Consortium Feb. 2014.

A Breast Cancer Alphabet is straight-forward, concise, and honest book by news executive Madhulika Sikka that breathes new life into a breast cancer world too often drowning in symbolism, cliche, and product placement. The short (2- to 5-page) entries offer 26 personal reflections — from A (“anxiety”) to Zzzz’s (meaning, “sleep”) — that speak to the contours of her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, uncertainty amid mountains of information, and how none of the signposts in Cancerland really prepares anyone for the trip. Each letter shares a glimpse of how Sikka made sense of, and navigated, her breast cancer but also opens a new conversation about one of the most talked about, venerated, and commercialized diseases in American culture. Sikka’s alphabetical musings share aspects of breast cancer that are often, unless you’re in the right circles, unspoken. By giving them voice and situating them within the broader cultural context, she invites readers to think about the power and the limits of language and culture. In doing so, she encourages readers to think about their own alphabet(s).

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Murphy Book CoverReview of “Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience” by Michelle Murphy

Gender & Society Oct. 2013.

In Seizing the Means of Reproduction, Michelle Murphy traces a set of feminist projects in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond to demonstrate how feminist, liberal, and imperial experiments to seize the means of reproduction animated one another in efforts to achieve empowerment, health, and national prosperity. She shows how a proliferation of feminisms problematized but also relied on technoscience and a new moral economy to work toward their goals, and how the problems feminist health activists tackled were “remade, refolded, rearticulated, [and] rematerialized by assemblages operating on different scales, on discrepant terrains, with shifting practices” (p. 149). Far from being unified, feminist politics was a matter of relations between feminisms, entangled in historical formations, politics of difference, and biopolitical tendencies that varied by time and space and valued life via reproduction differently.

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Mattingly CoverReview of “The Paradox of Hope: Journeys through a Clinical Borderland” by Cheryl Mattingly

Contemporary Sociology Vol. 41 (no. 2): pp. 223-4, 2012.

The Paradox of Hope by Cheryl Mattingly intimately explores the experiences of African American families who are caring for children with severe and chronic health problems and disabilities. Bearing witness to their crises as they navigate the medical system within the specific context of the multicultural urban hospital, Mattingly analyzes hope not only as an existential problem but also as a culturally and structurally situated discursive practice, one that involves deep contemplation about what it means to have a good life and be a good person in the wake of suffering. The theoretical-methodological approach Mattingly proposes in this work builds upon her earlier research into the therapeutic practices of occupational therapists. Therapists tried to create “healing dramas” to transform patients’ mundane activities in the clinical setting into dramatic moments that represent new possibilities for their futures. For those facing serious impairment, hope is a personal practice and an ongoing conversation within the context of interpersonal relationships, the health care system, and the broader culture.

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Clarke CoverReview of “Biomedicalization: Technoscience, Health, and Illness in the U.S.” by Clarke, A.E., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R., Fishman, J.R., and Shim, J.

Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 34 (no. 1): pp. 155-157, 2012.

Biomedicalization, by Adele E. Clarke and colleagues, is an ambitious book that fleshes out the complexities of technoscientific biomedicine and showcases stellar case studies that concretize and complicate existing understandings of biomedicalization and its impact on society and life itself. The authors systematically explain five interrelated processes that form the foundation of biomedicalization theory and situate biomedicalization within the recent history of American medicine while tracing epistemological developments and demonstrating the increased permeation of the biological sciences. The bio prefix is of critical importance to (bio)medicalization theory as it signifies new forms of (bio)power, (bio)politics, and (bio)capital that are situated at the site of the body and implicated in social processes. (Bio)medicalization further integrates the body –‘from macro to nano’– into efficient systems and regulatory controls that bend the ‘clinical gaze’ in a molecular direction.

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Subramanian CoverReview of “After the Cure: The Untold Stories of Breast Cancer Survivors” by Emily Abel and Saska Subramanian

Pink Ribbon Blues Blog, October 12, 2011.

After the Cure: The Untold Stories of Breast Cancer Survivors by medical historian Emily Abel and medical sociologist Saskia Subramanian captures the spectrum of long-term post-treatment side effects that health practitioners often fail to acknowledge or address. Abel and Subramanian interviewed 74 women who discuss the physical symptoms and emotional realities resulting not only from treatment but from the cocktail of drugs used to mitigate the side effects of those treatments. They experienced debilitating fatigue, weakness, nerve damage, pain, memory loss and/or inability to concentrate (i.e., chemo-brain), insomnia, lymphedema, headaches, arthritis, loss of sex drive, and other symptoms. Abel and Subramanian conclude: “Living in a society that expects everyone to overcome any adversity, many survivors felt intense shame about lingering health problems. Consequently, some neither asserted their rights to accommodations at work nor demanded adequate support at home. Expectations of cure also produce a deep current of suspicion about chronic health problems.”

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Book CoverReview of “Better Cancer Care” by Liz Forbat, Gill Hubbard, and Nora Kearney

Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 32 (no. 4): pp. 2-3, 2010.

Better Cancer Care by Forbat and colleagues focuses on what it means to have cancer or to be involved in cancer care. Based in research in Scotland, the book emphasizes that cancer affects not only the diagnosed, but also friends, families, health professionals, co-workers, and communities. The authors argue that, although a patient-centered approach—particularly patient choice and empowerment—is the focus of much policy and practice in Scotland, cancer care policy and practice have failed to address broader social contexts. Thus, additional policies should focus on the development of community and professional partnerships, recognition of unpaid ⁄ informal carers, consideration of identity issues and meaning making, and promotion of a general culture of caring that focuses on the cancer patient as a social being who is more than an embodied tumor.

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