How Cancer Crossed the Color Line

How Cancer Crossed the Color Line

How Cancer Crossed the Color Line

How Cancer Crossed the Color Line


In the course of the 20th century, cancer went from being perceived as a white woman's nemesis to a "democratic disease" to a fearsome threat in communities of color. Drawing on film and fiction, on medical and epidemiological evidence, and on patients' accounts, Keith Wailoo tracks this transformation in cancer awareness, revealing how not only awareness, but cancer prevention, treatment, and survival have all been refracted through the lens of race.

Spanning more than a century, the book offers a sweeping account of the forces that simultaneously defined cancer as an intensely individualized and personal experience linked to whites, often categorizing people across the color line as racial types lacking similar personal dimensions. Wailoo describes how theories of risk evolved with changes in women's roles, with African-American and new immigrant migration trends, with the growth of federal cancer surveillance, and with diagnostic advances, racial protest, and contemporary health activism. The book examines such powerful and transformative social developments as the mass black migration from rural south to urban north in the 1920s and 1930s, the World War II experience at home and on the war front, and the quest for civil rights and equality in health in the 1950s and '60s. It also explores recent controversies that illuminate the diversity of cancer challenges in America, such as the high cancer rates among privileged women in Marin County, California, the heavy toll of prostate cancer among black men, and the questions about why Vietnamese-American women's cervical cancer rates are so high.

A pioneering study,How Cancer Crossed the Color Linegracefully documents how race and gender became central motifs in the birth of cancer awareness, how patterns and perceptions changed over time, and how the "war on cancer" continues to be waged along the color line.


In the spring of 1977, Minnie Riperton’s health battles offered stark proof that cancer awareness was changing, and that the disease was (in the words of one observer) “not a white disease anymore.” the national press portrayed the twenty-nine-year-old African-American soul singer with a five-and-a-halfoctave range as a remarkable cancer survivor. “Very much in tune with [her] body,” Riperton had “found [the breast lump] herself’ and benefited from early detection. Her subsequent efforts to help other women “by publicizing her own personal experience with breast cancer” exemplified courageous outreach. She appeared on the Tonight Show, lectured nationally, and became an honorary chairman of the American Cancer Society’s education crusade. the disease was not a death sentence, she would tell her audiences: “I got cancer, I lost a breast, but I saved the rest of my life because I examined myself early, now I’m healthy, I picked up my life where it left off.” in a White House ceremony in 1977, President Jimmy Carter honored her as a tenacious new model, not only for black Americans but for all those who faced the “constant combined hope and fear” surrounding cancer.

When Riperton’s cancer returned in 1979, it transformed her from a model of determination and survival to “a symbol of the disease’s growing and tragic destruction of Black people… a metaphor for the tens of thousands of . . .

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