Our Cancer, Ourselves

Forty years ago this month, Our Bodies, Ourselves hit bookstores. The 40th anniversary edition recently came out, and last night NBC Nightly News interviewed women ranging from author and screenwriter Nora Ephron to famed breast surgeon, author and Army of Women founder Dr. Susan Love.

If you weren’t around then, it’s hard to understand just how groundbreaking this book was. We were just starting to talk openly about things like reproductive health and birth control, and it provided a road map. It’s been published in 25 languages, and Time magazine named it one of the most influential 100 non-fiction books. An updated 40th anniversary edition was recently published (and it’s available at a 70 percent discount to health clinics and non-profits.)

I was 15 when the original version was published. I never thought it would be around for 40 years, or that I would be purchasing a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause to try to make sense of that next female frontier.

The book providing the first real road map for breast cancer was the still-excellent First, You Cry by Betty Rollin, which came out five years later. Although the fall crop of breast cancer books has become as perennial as pumpkin harvests, I think First, You Cry is still the gold standard. Not only is it an unflinching look at the roller coaster of emotions she experienced, it also provides a look into how much medicine has changed. I spent the night in a short-stay unit after my mastectomy; she was in the hospital for a week after hers.

When I look back on what’s changed, I’m glad women’s health issues and cancer are no longer in the shadows. I’m glad we educate ourselves and share our stories with each other and stand up for ourselves as patients and as women. I’m grateful for social media and the community I’ve become a part of.

But when I look at how our society has changed in 40 years, it seems that while there is no shortage of people who are willing to talk, fewer are willing to really listen. A lot of today’s political discourse seems to have hardened into ideology. I see a bit of that in some health discussions too, mainly around patient empowerment. And I find it interesting that patient empowerment is often equated with feminism. At this stage of my life, I’ve become wary of “isms.”

Would I go back to the way things were then? Absolutely not. I’d just like to see a shift to more listening and respectful disagreement in our public discourse.


7 thoughts on “Our Cancer, Ourselves

  1. I remember when this book came out too! I was 13. It was groundbreaking.
    I have never read Betty Rollins’ book; now that I have experienced BC first hand, I think I’ll add it to my reading list. Thanks for the reminder — and the memories!


    • Renn,
      Thanks for your comments! I sometimes wonder what it’s like for women who have grown up taking this knowledge for granted. Can they picture a world where it didn’t exist?
      Speaking of books–ahem– I might be flattering myself, but a friend told me that my book From Zero to Mastectomy reminded her a lot of Betty Rollin’s book. I consider that praise of the highest order.

  2. Jackie,
    Your post is so very thoughtful. In all of your writing and thinking, you have an ability to focus on what’s most important. I appreciate that you take the conversation back to a neutral voice that’s willing to listen and actively move the conversation along on paths of common ground. Your comment on Komen’s Message to the BC Community on my blog is a great example.

    Your response was exactly what I’d hoped for from everyone who stopped by but sadly, that didn’t happen. Any suggestions for how to move this conversation into a true dialog where each side listens, role reverses and–I’m going to be a little radical here–compromises, would be valued and appreciated. Drop me a line if you’d like at brenda@breastcancersisterhood.com.


  3. Thanks for this great post, Jackie. I actually don’t remember when that book came out. I must have been foucused on other things! Sometimes I do get frustrated because it seems the hard work of feminism has been forgotten sometimes. I even posted on it recently. I do not want to go back either. I agree people seem willing to talk, talk, talk these days. The talking part is “easy” it’s the listening part that’s tough. And lacking.

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