Grazia De Michele
In September 1995, Lucy Sherak was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43. A mother of two, she was an occupational psychologist living in Marin County, California. She had previously worked as a recording engineer and was a trained composer. After a mastectomy, Sherak decided not to have a reconstruction or wear a prosthesis. Instead, she chose to wear a button made out of white metal and bearing the words “Cancer Sucks” stamped in red capitals on her amputated breast. Lucy designed the button herself. She had drawn a sketch in the journal she had started to write after her diagnosis and had a dozen printed in a shop.
The reason for Sherak to make the “Cancer Sucks” button and wear it on her chest after her mastectomy was political. In the closing lines of her poem Breast Envy, she described her struggle to look beyond her personal experience of illness and its related physical and emotional suffering:
“Audre Lorde said that
when women hide their mastectomies
they lose the ability to identify with each other
and form alliances
I wear a button saying “Cancer Sucks”
in place of my absent breast
And the silicone “breast form” lies motionless
in the back of my drawer.”
In her Cancer Journals, first published in 1980, Audre Lorde offered the perspective of a black lesbian feminist on breast cancer. She raised her voice against the societal attempt to construct breast cancer “as a cosmetic problem” that could be “solved by a prostethic pretense.” Lorde was not willing to hide her scars behind a prosthesis since she considered them “an honourable reminder that [she] may be a casualty in the cosmic war against radiation, animal fat, air pollution, McDonald’s hamburgers and Red Dye No. 2.” She called on mastectomized women to “translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge” by ceasing to fill the void left in their breast by surgery with silicone forms. It was time for them to “make themselves visible to each other” and collectively mobilize against a deadly disease whose incidence was on the rise.
Fifteen years later, Lorde’s words inspired Sherak to use her button to let people know she had breast cancer and did not intend to conform to the normative model of patienthood that was then becoming dominant. By the early 1990s, breast cancer ceased to be a shameful secret for the women affected. Still, Samantha King points out that its destigmatization came as a result of “an informal alliance of large corporations (particularly pharmaceutical companies, mammography equipment manufacturers, and cosmetic producers), major cancer charities, the state, and the media that emerged at around the same time and was able to capitalize on growing public interest in the disease.” In 1985, October was established in the US as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) by the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (then Zeneca) to propagandize early detection through mammographic screening as the only effective means to prevent breast cancer. AstraZeneca produces tamoxifen, the most widely used breast cancer drug, and, at that time, was part of the Imperial Chemical Industries manufacturing carcinogenic products, such as the herbicide acetochlor. The success of NBCAM spurred other companies and non-profit organizations to jump on the bandwagon in the context of the neoliberal withdrawal of the state from public services.
In October 1992, the cosmetic company Estée Lauder, with the help of Self magazine, started to distribute pink ribbons with its products. The breast cancer ribbon had been created for the first time by Charlotte Haley, a woman whose family members had been suffering from the disease. In 1991, Haley had autonomously set up a grassroots campaign asking people to urge the National Cancer Institute to invest more in cancer research. She handcrafted peach coloured ribbons and distributed them, attached to a card, outside supermarkets. When Self’s editor in chief Alexandra Penney approached her for a possible collaboration, she refused sensing that the initiative was aimed to boost profits. Lawyers advised Penney and Estée Lauder to use a different colour. After convening focus groups, a feminine and reassuring shade of pink was chosen. The pink ribbon has since become the ubiquitous symbol for a mystified image of breast cancer, presented as a rite of passage and an opportunity for personal improvement. According to Gayle Sulik, the “pink ribbon culture” is embodied by the stereotypical character of the “she-ro”: the white, middle-class, heterosexual “woman hero in pink [who] fights breast cancer” with optimism and cheerfulness “and wins.”
Sherak refused to subscribe to what she saw as the misleading and trivialized image of breast cancer popularized by the pink ribbon. The “Cancer Sucks” button, with its unequivocal message, was her answer to the corporate softening of the brutal reality of a disease forcing those diagnosed with it to go through harsh treatments that could not even guarantee survival.
While still receiving chemotherapy treatment, Sherak was introduced to Breast Cancer Action (BCAction), a San Francisco-based grassroots group founded in 1990 by a group of women living with metastatic breast cancer and led by Elenore Pred. Incidences of breast cancer in the Bay Area were incredibly high at that time. In 1994, the Northern California Cancer Centre released a report stating that “white women in the San Francisco/Oakland Area have the highest rate [of breast cancer] in the world.” A civil rights and anti-Vietnam activist, Pred was angry and so were the women who joined her. Breast cancer had for too long been considered only a personal tragedy rather than an epidemic to be addressed collectively. The AIDS movement, particularly the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), was their source of inspiration. In a few years, BCAtion became the most radical breast cancer organization in a landscape increasingly saturated by the pinkification of the disease.
Sherak joined and soon became a board member of BCAction at a turning point in its history. In 1995, Barbara Brenner, a former civil rights attorney diagnosed with breast cancer two years earlier at the age of 41, became the first full-time executive director. Under her leadership, BCAction achieved financial independence and adopted the policy of not accepting donations from corporations contributing to or profiting from breast cancer, including pharmaceutical companies. As a result, it could establish itself as the watchdog for the breast cancer movement.
It was Brenner who asked Sherak whether her button could be used by BCAction. In 1997, “Cancer Sucks” buttons and stickers began to be distributed by the organization. Announcing Sherak’s death at age 45 on 4 January 1998, BCAction emphasised how her buttons “‘tell it like it is’ and are a reminder to the world at large that there is much work to be done to end this epidemic.”
According to Maren Klawiter, “Cancer Sucks” buttons came to symbolize one of the three “cultures of action” taking shape around breast cancer in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. This culture of action was quintessentially feminist and characterized by its close proximity to the lesbian community and AIDS activism. It strongly opposed the heteronormative model of the “breast cancer survivor” popularized by the cancer establishment.
An antidote to the pink ribbon, the “Cancer Sucks” button has become popular among BCAction’s members and sympathisers. It is worn by those attending demonstrations or in their daily lives and, more recently, to show support for the organization’s values and mission. Others have expressed their uneasiness about the button. In 2003, a member wrote to Barbara Brenner saying that she found it “quite offensive”. In her reply, Brenner summarized the story of the pink ribbon and that of the “Cancer Sucks” button. She then concluded: “[Lucy Sherak] wanted a symbol that would tell it like it is: Breast cancer isn’t pretty, and it is not—like the phrase, as you pointed out in your letter—pleasant. We have found that the message resonates with many people who have gone through treatment and live with the realities of the disease every day. And while we understand and respect that some people are offended by the phrase, we believe in the importance of telling the truth about breast cancer—even when the truth isn’t easy to hear.”
The pink ribbon and the “Cancer Sucks” button were both created by two ordinary women touched by breast cancer and willing to change the status quo. The fate of these two objects was, however, very different: the former, co-opted by capitalism – despite the resistance opposed by its inventor – symbolizes the oppression that women endure even when facing a dreadful disease, preposterously transformed into a brand. In contrast, the “Cancer Sucks” button has not been deprived of its incendiary meaning by the activists that adopted it, and has become an icon for all those who believe that a fairer world, one that is more respectful of health rights, is possible.
Grazia De Michele is a historian and breast cancer activist. She obtained her PhD from the University of Reading (UK) in 2012 and is currently a partner of the Breast Cancer Consortium. Find her on Twitter @AmazzoneFuriosa