Manmade Breast Cancers

Manmade Breast Cancers

Manmade Breast Cancers

Manmade Breast Cancers


A new understanding of humanity and feminism from the starting point of breast health is the ultimate goal of Zillah Eisenstein's political memoir of her family's experience with breast cancer. The well-known feminist author argues that politics always needs the personal, and that the personal is never enough on its own. Her return to the personal side of the political combines the two for a radicalized way of seeing, viewing, and knowing. The author strives to bring together a critique of environmental damage and the health of women's bodies, gain perspective on the role race plays as a factor in breast cancers and in political agendas, link prevention and treatment, and connect individual support and political change. Eisenstein was sixteen when her forty-five-year-old mother successfully battled breast cancer. Her two sisters, Sarah and Giah, were in their twenties when they were diagnosed, but neither of them survived. She received her own diagnosis when she was forty. Despite her family history, however, Eisenstein rejects the simple argument that genes are simply determining, rather than liable to influence by external factors. She also questions the dominance of the theory that breast cancer is caused by high lifetime exposure to estrogen. Instead, she views breast cancer as an environmental disease, best understood in terms of ecological, racial, economic, and sexual influences on individual women. She uses the term "manmade" to indicate not only industrial carcinogens and other cultural causes, but also the male-dominated and -defined scientific practices of research and treatment. In response, Manmade Breast Cancers offers a retelling of the meaning of breast cancer and a discussion of universal feminist issues about the body. The author says she writes "to discover a more just globe which will treasure the health of all of our bodies." The emotional depth and intellectual breadth of her argument adds new dimensions to how we understand breast cancer.


Breast cancer is a political site from which I uncover the silences used to construct women's bodies. I share pain and suffering not simply to authenticate this way of knowing, but to push elsewhere. I do not mean to universalize from my body but rather to build a bodily history with its politics, beyond itself. I share my family story not as melodrama with victims and sadness but as a rich location for a personally passionate politics that includes the wider environments of breast tissue. I build a story that unravels and opens up with unclear markers of beginning and end.

I write in order to see what is not easy to retrieve immediately. I write of my body to discover its politics through its own specific history. I write with an urgency to turn the political agenda across the globe toward the health of the breast. I use my body's story to restart, again, the ongoing project toward antiracist feminisms that can challenge exploitation and degradation across the globe.

I want to create a more complex understanding of breast cancer. In this telling, genetics is important but not in some obvious sense. Nor is this most often the real story that needs telling. As well, the environment is important in my construction, but here too I think of environments as plural and as entering the body. We need to complicate science and its methods so we can decontaminate it.

I do not write as a scientist of the breast. I write instead as a feminist theorizing breast cancer in the hope of understanding it, and with it, our world. Theory is a way of seeing connectedness–of the breast to the rest of the body; of the body to the rest of its environments; of the historical process over time, which triggers cancer mutations, to the fluidity of borders between the breast and all else. Theory allows me to see beyond singularity and inevitability.

My kind of theory asks you to multiply your vision of things, asks you to proliferate the way you see, which multiplies the potential for thinking . . .

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