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Breast Cancer and the Patriarchy

Throughout history, paternalism has been prevalent in the healthcare industry as a result of American society being built on the oppression and exploitation of minority groups. For example, in the 19th and 20th centuries, women had a complex relationship with psychiatry. It was largely normalized to send women who did not follow the direction of the patriarchy to mental institutions under the diagnosis of “hysteria.” We have come a long way from the unacknowledged blatant sexism of the past, but discrimination in healthcare is still all too common. This is especially common for minority groups, such as black women, who have consistently been treated with dismissal, disregard, and disbelief in doctors’ offices. In order to effectuate change, we must educate others about overlooked issues in the healthcare field. Today, we will start with the sexism in a health problem that typically occurs in women: breast cancer. Breast cancer can be easily paralleled with prostate cancer in men; however, despite the similarities, the two problems are treated very differently.

Paternalism is “the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest.” Often, many argue it is often necessary for the medical field; however, it often turns into a tool wielded primarily against women. Oftentimes doctors will adopt paternalism to “summon” women to get a breast cancer screening, while men are typically left to make “an informed decision” about whether to get a prostate cancer screening or not. This is telltale gender bias, trusting men to be intelligent enough to make their own decision, but not women, despite breast cancer and prostate cancer both having similar “ambiguities of evidence”. In situations like these, paternalism has evolved into sexism. Although there is plenty at stake with cancer, if this wasn’t sexism, males suspected of prostate cancer should get the same “summons”. This is common in other elements of society as well: it is normalized for men to tell women what to do but not vice versa. This sentiment stems from the patriarchal roles society has been built upon; the obedient wife and dominant husband now translate to most occurrences in life such as schooling, work, and, evidently, healthcare.

Additionally, when women are faced with choices for treatment, their wishes are often ignored in favor of the doctor's opinion, which ties back into the issue of bodily autonomy for females as a whole. This is illustrated best in regards to breast cancer when a mastectomy is described as an option for treatment. Increasing numbers of women getting mastectomies don’t want breast reconstruction for many reasons including health issues. Many women and their doctors have agreed upon not undergoing reconstruction prior to the surgery, but upon waking up will find that their doctors had taken their own liberty and ignored the agreed-upon prospect. One woman said that after clearly stating her desire to stay flat and having the doctor agree, seconds from going under the anesthesia, her doctor said, “I’m just going to leave a little extra skin in case you change your mind.”

The surgery world is very paternalistic in a sexist manner, often ignoring the choices women make in favor of the long-held beliefs regarding sexuality and femininity that devolve into the “anti-flat” (pro-reconstruction) bias so many surgeons seem to hold. The objectification of women plays a role in this by leading people to believe a woman's worth stems from their body, including their breasts, so removing their breasts would be a “bad decision.” The overwhelming male dominance in surgical fields also doesn’t help. Paternalism shines too in breast cancer screenings, following the same notions of not trusting women’s choices and informed decisions about their own bodies.

Past the doctor's office and services, the sexism also bleeds into breast cancer awareness campaigns. Internet trolls’ responses to breast cancer awareness month depict the campaign in a “humorous light,” illustrating it as something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. As a whole, women’s issues often are trivialized with people reframing feminists as “crazy femi-nazis”, and describing the Me Too movement as an overreaction by females. Additionally, in many ads and graphics for breast cancer awareness, there are hypersexualized images, despite the issue being a serious affliction that kills many patients yearly. This goes, once again, to show the objectification and hypersexualization of female bodies. This hyper fixation on the “sexy body parts” instead of the cancer is offensive to women who have experienced breast cancer and struggled with their lives.

Breast cancer is not a joke, It is a real issue affecting over 266,000 new people a year that is painful, debilitating, exhausting, and life-threatening. While it is an incredibly publicized disease, its treatment in a sexist light is often overlooked and hidden from society. Someone once said “awareness is the greatest agent for change,” so let us become aware as a society. And, let us change our society as we know it.


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