Publication Date

Spring 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Roberto J. González

Subject Areas

Cultural anthropology


Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and, apart from some forms of skin cancer, is the most common cancer diagnosis for women. In 2021, the U.S Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results reported that approximately 281,550 women were diagnosed with, and 43,600 died of the breast cancer. Despite advancements in testing and treatments, about one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, and breast cancer has the highest cancer death rate for women, excluding lung cancer.Studies have also shown that breast cancer prognosis and mortality is not uniform, and is statistically more deadly for women in lower-income communities. Moreover, breast cancer incidence rates in industrialized nations have risen over time, and women who emigrate from developed countries with low breast cancer incidence to localities in the U.S. with high breast cancer incidence have a dramatically increased lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Despite the seeming ubiquity of the disease, in the U.S., breast cancer is culturally understood as a disease that afflicts the individual; breast cancer is something that "just happens.” However, when situated diachronically and alongside the historical context of war, agrochemical use, petrochemicals, plastics, and nuclear weapons use, as well as notions of American industrial and technoscientific “progress,” these pockets of the country with higher rates of women’s cancers become suspect. As industries ebb and flow over time, and humans and chemical carcinogens move across space, these situated maps become increasingly complex, obscuring links between breast cancer causation and affliction. The study presented here uses an anthropological lens to explore these physical and experiential landscapes to reveal both expected and unexpected dimensions of women’s health and wellbeing. This master’s thesis explores the interconnected nature of cancer, treatment, and public imaginaries of cancer by revealing cancer-related socio-political entanglements, ethical (and unethical) practices, and cultural assumptions, as well as how these phenomena affect the ways that women with breast cancer experience their disease. I used ethnographic and autoethnographic research methods to gather data from breast cancer patients and documented my own experience as a former breast cancer patient. These data allowed me to investigate whether prevailing discussions of “lifestyle choices” or “genetic risk” are rhetorical controlling processes that divert attention from corporate, governmental, or other institutional accountability, and whether or not these discursive diversions shift culpability onto women who are at risk of—or living with—breast cancer.