Scholarly Publications

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Breast Cancer Movements: History, Ideologies and Politics

In Feminist Perspectives on Breast Cancer, Edited by Ana Porroche-Escudero, Gerard Coll-Planas, and Caterina Riba. Barcelona, Spain: Eumo Editorial, 2016. [Published in Catalan].

The U.S. breast cancer movement helped to transform breast cancer’s social and medical landscape domestically and, in some ways, internationally. After giving a brief introduction to the U.S. socio-historical context, this chapter identifies feminist influences within the movement and analyzes the de-politicization of advocacy over time. It will show that women’s efforts to take control of their illness, to support the diagnosed, and to challenge medical authority and ‘expert’ control over scientific and medical knowledge eventually gave way to ‘awareness’ activities that feminized breast cancer in terms of a ‘pink ribbon culture’ grounded in normative gender expectations, idealized cancer survivorship, and consumption-based logic. Yet the feminist underpinnings of breast cancer advocacy persist despite the ubiquity of pink ribbon culture and industry. A cross-cultural comparison of breast cancer as a social phenomenon will illuminate the impact of feminism on breast cancer activism and its vital role in deepening public understanding of the disease as a complex social problem.

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#RETHINKPINK: Moving Beyond Breast Cancer Awareness

SWS Distinguished Feminist Lecture

Originally published in Gender & Society, 28(5), 2014.
Reprinted in Chapter 5 (Buying and Selling Gender) in The Kaleidoscope of Gender: Prisms, Patterns, and Possibilities, edited by J. Spade and C.G. Valentine. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Over the last 30 years the breast cancer movement has worked to make breast cancer a national priority, raise awareness and funds, galvanize social support, and impact the direction of research. Women have been at the forefront of information sharing, activism, and patient empowerment. Treatments have improved incrementally and mortality rates have declined overall. By these indicators, the movement is a success. Yet, 70 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors, making causation and prevention uncertain; approximately 40,000 women (and men) die from metastatic breast cancer each year, a number that hasn’t changed for decades; corporate and political agendas stand in the way of patients’ rights and access to quality care; profit motives and disease branding supersede efforts to provide meaningful support and accurate health information; and breast cancer is popularized to the degree that “pink consumption” has become more of a trendy pastime than a rallying call for social change. Tenacious activists and a growing number of citizens, though divergent in the problems they tackle and methods they use, share a critical stance that fosters new thinking about breast cancer and calls for transparency, accountability, and alternatives to the pink ribbon.

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Gender and Feminisms in Breast Cancer Advocacy: Lessons from the United States and Poland

Sulik G. and E. Zierkiewicz In Gender and Power, 15:697-703, 2014.

The United States breast cancer movement helped to transform breast cancer’s social and medical landscape domestically and, in some ways, internationally. However, differences in gender identities, power relations, and the role of feminism(s) cross-culturally also shaped breast cancer advocacy itself. After giving a brief introduction to the socio-historical context of the U.S. and Polish breast cancer movements, this article illuminates some of the linkages and divergences between the United States and Poland to demonstrate the role of gender and power in social movements that concentrate exclusively on women’s (health) issues, namely breast cancer. This comparison of social phenomena from two countries illuminates the impact of cultural patterns on models of activism as they relate to feminism and traditional gender roles.

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“Many Students Really Do Not Yet Know How to Behave!”: The Syllabus as a Tool for Socialization

Sulik G. and J. Keys In Teaching Sociology, 42(2):161-160, 2014.

his study analyzes the content and discursive strategies within 39 introductory-level sociology course syllabi published in TRAILS, the Teaching Resources and Innovations Library of the American Sociological Association, from two different time periods (2004 and 2010) to explore the syllabus as a tool for socialization. We find that syllabi, commended for their attention to pedagogical practice, do more than communicate course objectives and the means for achieving them. Syllabi (re)socialize students for success in the college setting by establishing student-teacher roles and norms and setting the tone for classroom interactions. The integration of sociological concepts and perspectives into syllabi also immerses students into the discipline and practice of sociology.

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Pink Ribbon Campaigns

by G. Sulik and E. Zierkiewicz. In Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, edited by Merril Smith. Alta Mira Press, 2014.

In the last two decades pink ribbon campaigns have, perhaps inadvertently, forged a profitable pink ribbon industry in which breast cancer awareness has given way to pink ribbon visibility. Investigations into products, companies, and charities have found little transparency, accountability, or evidence-based practice. Yet the industry spends billions to promote the pink ribbon while marketing products and services, some of which involve the production, manufacturing, and/or sales of products linked to the disease (i.e., “pinkwashing”). With the general populace still unaware of the complexities of breast cancer or barriers to ending the epidemic, many pink ribbon campaigns profit from hope while selling the image of the courageous warrior to anyone who buys, displays, or thinks pink. Fortunately, strains within the breast cancer movement continue to resist commercialization and promote evidence-based information and analyses of the systemic factors influencing breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Support Groups and Advocacy

G. Sulik and E. Zierkiewicz. In Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, edited by Merril Smith. Alta Mira Press, 2014.

For over a century women in the United States have worked to become empowered when dealing with breast cancer. In 1920 Barbara Mueller wrote letters to her surgeon, William Halsted – the father of the radical mastectomy (a standard but invasive and debilitating treatment for breast cancer into the 1970s). By the early 1990s women’s organizing resulted in a successful social movement with hundreds if not thousands of community-based organizations across the nation. After two decades of advocacy breast cancer was out in the open, support systems were in place particularly for early stage women, screening programs were widespread, research programs were infused with money, patient advocates influenced research agendas and medical practice, the pink ribbon became the movement’s official symbol (1992), awareness activities such as the popular Race for the Cure were common, and breast cancer awareness became part of the American mainstream as well as a profitable item of popular consumption.

Aspects of the American approach to breast cancer have gone global. Yet the extent to which the American approach applies to other settings is a crucial consideration. Breast cancer as a social cause is highly contested in the United States, particularly in terms of the commercialization of a disease and the role of social movements and culture in promoting or resisting medicalization. American Influences in Poland provide an illuminating counterpoint.

What Survivorship Means

In Virtual Mentor, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 15:697-703, 2013.

According to the National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Survivorship, a person is considered a cancer survivor at the time of cancer diagnosis and remains so for the remainder of his or her life. By this definition there were about 13.7 million cancer survivors in the United States as of January 2012, a number projected to reach 18 million in the next decade. Sixty-four percent of the 2012 survivor population had survived 5 or more years; 40 percent had survived 10 or more years; and 15 percent had survived 20 or more years. But, contrary to the common definition of survival (i.e., to live), many cancer survivors do not actually survive cancer—according to an 18-year study by the American Association for Cancer Research, just over half of people labeled cancer “survivors” ultimately died of cancer. This contradiction creates confusion about the meaning of survivorship for patients, caregivers, and health practitioners. What’s more, it influences social support, policy guidelines, health care delivery and research, and survivors’ lives.

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The Future of the Cancer Prevention Education Workforce: Why Health Literacy, Advocacy, and Stakeholder Collaborations Matter

G. Sulik, R. Chamberlain, and C. Cameron, Journal of Cancer Education Vol. 27 (no. 2), 2012.

The “Future Directions in Cancer Prevention and Control: Workforce Implications for Training, Practice, and Policy” — sponsored by the Cancer Prevention Research Training Program at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center– focused on two central questions: 1) How can cancer prevention take a central role in the strategic planning to meet and minimize the effect of the future cancer burden? 2) Given the shortage anticipated for the oncology workforce by 2020, does the cancer prevention workforce face a similar shortage? And, what must be done? In considering these questions, it is vital to address the considerable gaps in information, communication, training, professional development, roles, and levels of collaboration among multiple disciplines, key stakeholders, and diverse constituencies. A Health Policy and Advocacy Working Group discussed key barriers to closing these gaps and mechanisms for addressing them.

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Our Diagnoses, Ourselves: The Rise of the Technoscientific Illness Identity

In Sociology Compass Vol. 5 (no. 6): pp. 463-477, 2011.

Biomedicine situates the definitions, practices, and controls of the medical system within the field of technoscience, which relies on new knowledge, high technology, and biomedical health and risk surveillance. Though there has been a major shift in the role of the medical consumer since the 1970s and a general recognition of patients’ rights, biomedicine holds significant authority over peoples’ lives. Individual and collective identities are now routinely constructed through technoscientific means.

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Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health

Oxford University Press, 2011 (paperback edition 2012), 480 Pages | 4-pp. color plate insert.

Medical sociologist Gayle A. Sulik reveals the hidden costs of the pink ribbon as an industry, one in which breast cancer functions as a brand name with a pink ribbon logo. Based on historical and ethnographic research, analysis of awareness campaigns and advertisements, and hundreds of interviews, Pink Ribbon Blues shows that while millions walk, run, and purchase products for a cure, cancer rates continue to rise, industry thrives, and breast cancer is stigmatized anew for those who reject the pink ribbon model. Even as Sulik points out the flaws of “pink ribbon culture,” she outlines the positives and offers alternatives. The paperback includes a new Introduction investigating Susan G. Komen for the Cure and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer.

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