I had assumed that the small lump in my breast was a blocked milk duct from nursing my seven-month-old son. The news that I had stage 2 breast cancer stunned.
“But it’s not in my family,” I told the radiologist. “And I have a healthy lifestyle! Why did I get breast cancer?”
In one way or another, friends and relatives here in the U.S. asked the same question. Why had this happened to me? Their explanations coalesced around a single point: bad genes.
But when I told my friends and host family in Haiti, where I’ve been studying social and political life for the past decade, their reactions were different. They asked: Who had done this to me? Was a colleague angry? Was a family member getting revenge? Or was someone simply jealous, especially after the good year I’d had landing a new job, having a baby, buying a house and having the Cubs win the World Series? Someone must have wished me ill will.
Hearing these interpretations awakened me from the foggy shock of the initial diagnosis, and I started to look at cancer with my professional eye as an anthropologist.
My first realization was that the Americans’ and Haitians’ answers were not so different. Both responses located breast cancer as something that happens to someone else – to someone saddled with bad family genes, or someone who stokes jealousies. The responses shielded my kindred from acknowledging that cancer is something that could happen to anyone – that it could happen to them.
Cancer incidence increasing
This is not merely because we’re living longer. Cases of younger women with invasive breast cancer have increased 2 percent annually since the mid-1970s.
As far as cancer rates in Haiti go, reliable statistics do not exist. But we do know that cancers are on a steep rise there and across the developing world, especially for younger people. We also know that this rise has a lot to do with the toxins, pollutants, diets and lifestyles that accompany development.
Considering these numbers, I realized that I was asking the wrong question, and that the answers I was receiving, be they from U.S. or Haitian confidants, were incomplete.
The question should not be why did I get breast cancer, but why are we getting it.
Toward a holistic understanding
As an anthropologist, I approach social problems holistically. I strive to understand the big picture that is often lost by focusing on singular variables: genes, jealousy. Holism encourages us to look beyond linear relationships of cause and effect and toward the assembly of forces that together influence our behaviors, conditions and outcomes.
In her book “Malignant,” anthropologist S. Lochlann Jain equates cancer to a “total social fact.” She says cancer is “a practice whose effects fissure through seemingly distinct areas of life, thus weaving them together.” The rise of cancer as a leading cause of death traces the history of industrialization, the development of social, economic and political practices that define the “developed” world, from agribusiness to industrial chemicals to Superfund sites.