Written by a medical historian who is also a physician, The Breast Cancer Wars narrates how breast cancer diagnostic methods and treatments have developed from the early twentieth century. More significantly, the book describes the debates and controversies that permeated this evolution and the ways in which not only clinicians and researchers, but, increasingly, women patients/activists shaped how we view, diagnose, and treat breast cancer today.

Individual chapters explore the influential (and ultimately contested) radical mastectomy procedure of William Halsted, the development of the "war" against breast cancer as a full-blown campaign developed and conducted within the public media and consciousness of the United States as well as within medical practice and research, the intertwined development of feminism and breast cancer activism, the "fall" of the radical mastectomy, and the continuing controversies surrounding mammography and genetic testing as modes of early detection and risk assessment. Lerner draws on a range of primary sources including texts from the archives of the American Cancer Society, the papers of doctors and patients, and advertisements from popular and professional magazines throughout the century.


This richly documented, well-written book will help patients, doctors, teachers, and the general reader situate ongoing debates about breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in the context of the illness's complex cultural history. Lerner's premise is that "[d]isease cannot be understood outside of its social and cultural context," and the book shows how physicians, activist patients like Rose Kushner, other feminists, non-profit organizations, medical researchers, and purveyors of popular culture were all important co-participants in this history, documenting their interconnections with fascinating primary materials and clear explanations of historical and clinical details.

Lerner makes a strong case for a distinctively "United States" approach to breast cancer, and convincingly points out that the emphasis on early diagnosis and treatment has sidelined any significant research into the causes (especially environmental ones) of breast cancer. His attention to the questions doctors and researchers ask about breast cancer (or any illness) and how those questions frame our medical research and treatment protocols makes this a book whose insights carry over to other issues in the cultural history of medicine and illness.

Teachers will find the introductory questions that frame this history especially useful, and will want to use the wonderful public service advertisements and other cultural artifacts included as spurs for classroom discussion. Excerpts of the book would pair nicely with Robert Hass's poem, A Story about the Body, Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals, and/or the Breast Cancer Fund's Art. Rage. Us.: Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer (see this database). Lerner was interviewed frequently shortly after the book's publication for comments on the latest wave of debate--about the value of mammography for women under age 50.


Subtitled "Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America"


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

Oxford, New York



Page Count