- James S. Olson (Author)
Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History. Johns Hopkins University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tanis Macdonald
In the preface to Bathsheba’s Breast, historian James S. Olson discusses his reasons for choosing the surgical amputation of his left arm in order to combat a recurring tumour, and offers this personal anecdote as an expression of solidarity with women who lose a breast to cancer. The arguable equivalency of the experiences is less of an issue than Olson’s bias towards radical surgical procedures, a bias that he comes by honestly but one that makes Bathsheba’s Breast a deeply subjective account of the history of breast cancer.
Treating “history’s oldest malaise” as a dread disease and medical mystery, Olson reconstructs cultural beliefs and individual histories with agility and relish; his affection for narrativizing the lives of prominent women who contracted breast tumours gives the first half of Bathsheba’s Breast considerable energy. His graphic accounts of primitive mastectomies performed without anesthetic in unsanitary conditions do not make comfortable reading, as indeed they should not. Olson’s painstaking research into the historical fallacies and treatment options for breast cancer provide an accessible overview of the development of medical science in this area.
The text’s account of these treatments would be more difficult to read without Olson’s sympathetic regard for the women whose journals and letters become the keys to discovering how pre-twentieth century women regarded the diagnosis of breast cancer. These women include Atossa, Queen of Persia in fifth century B.C., Anne of Austria who served as the Queen Mother of France in the seventeenth century, writer and intellectual Alice James, Nobel Prize winning physicist Marie Curie and American ambassador Shirley Temple Black. Olson spends a good deal of the text elaborating upon the medical histories and states of mind of these women as their breast tumours are discovered, diagnosed, and treated. His characterization of the women’s fortitude makes a good ballast against the anatomical fervour with which he describes each operation.
However, the change in the text is considerable when Olson turns his attention to William Halstead’s development of the mastectomy in the nineteenth century. As Olson charts the sophistication of medical procedures, he mirrors the style of medical discourse, and seems to do so without a trace of irony. The male doctors become heroic by pioneering experimental procedures, while the women who were so elaborately praised in the book’s first half are reduced by the experiments in radical mastectomy to a “nameless sorority,” a “sisterhood of guinea pigs.” Olson’s account of feminist challenges to medical legislation in the 1970s suffers from a similar problem. The text displays compassion towards individual sufferers who led the movement -- Rose Kushner in particular -- but beyond the individual, Olson seems to have little interest in the politics of women’s health. Far from focusing upon the feminist demand for a revolution in women’s health care, Olson treats the concerns of female patients – many of whom are also activists -- as merely ancillary to the struggle he calls the “breast cancer wars.” In choosing to focus on the health histories of Nancy Reagan, Happy Rockefeller and Betty Ford, Olson seems to legitimize their breast cancer as worthy of examination because of their ladylike demeanour and their husbands’ conservative politics. He goes on to disdain the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, and pillories any doctor who turns from surgical procedures to consider non-invasive treatment. He accuses both renowned oncologist Bernie Seigel and pioneer Norman Cousins of quackery for paying attention to the psychological health of cancer patients. These later chapters are the most subjective in the book and more difficult to read than the graphic operations of the first few chapters, leaving the impression that a more accurate subtitle for Olson’s book would be “Men, Mastectomies, and History.”
Bathsheba’s Breast takes its title from the story of a twentieth-century doctor who diagnoses breast cancer in one of Rembrandt’s models, after noting an irregularity in the appearance of her breast in a painting in which she modeled Bathsheba. His subsequent research into the nature of her death showed that she likely died of breast cancer. This anecdote functions as the perfect introduction to Olson’s book. The details are meticulously researched, yet fancifully narrativized; it is imaginatively conceived and scientifically interesting but grounded firmly in the premise that male doctors are driven by passion and genius, while women remain passive objects of the gaze, born to suffer either a tumour or a surgeon’s knife.
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MLA: Macdonald, Tanis. Cancer Treatment. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 175 - 176)
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