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Breast cancer affects one in eight women in the United States. Ashkenazi Jewish women and lesbians are high-risk populations. Jewish lesbian Barbara Brenner, first diagnosed with breast cancer as a high school student, devoted her life to advocating for breast cancer patients and survivors. So Much To Be Done: The Writings of Breast Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner is a posthumous collection of Brenner’s writings and blog posts, a record of her accomplishments and philosophy of life.
Editor Barbara Sjoholm, fellow breast cancer activist Rachel Morello-Frosch, and writing guru/breast cancer survivor Anne Lamott provide a well-rounded biography of Brenner that depicts a strong-willed, inquisitive, spiritual individual. Brenner loved people and hated corporations; she critiqued the healthcare system and companies that tried to make money off breast cancer through “pinkwashing.” She also shunned breast cancer organizations that shamed patients who did not endure their illness with a smile on their face. Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action (BCA) from 1995-2010, expanded membership in this organization from 3,500 to 50,000 people, and increased its emphasis on the environmental causes of breast cancer, social injustice that leads to unequal survival outcomes for the disease, and critique of corporate breast cancer “activism.” Under Brenner’s leadership, BCA got the world to see breast cancer not just as an individual’s fight for survival, but a public health emergency. She called BCA “a thinking person’s breast cancer organization,” and searched for fellow “hell-raisers” to join in the cause of “Think Before You Pink.” Sadly, it was not cancer, but ALS—a neurodegenerative disease—that cut Brenner down at 61 years old.
Why should you read this book? Because this is not another pity-party book written by someone with a life-threatening illness. So often, when reading Brenner’s blog posts, I forgot that she was sick because she rarely wrote about her own suffering or dwelled on it. In the blog post “Don’t Ask Me How I Am,” Brenner writes:
When people ask me how I am, it drives me nuts. I don’t want to discuss with everyone I see what it means to live everyday with a disease that I know will make me less and less functional, and ultimately kill me…
What kind of day I’m having, or how I am today, is an easier question to answer: I’m tired or not, it’s easy or hard for me to walk, or I have too much going on to tell. But at least those questions don’t feel as prying and insensitive as “how are you?”
Instead, Brenner’s blog posts provide a map for future activists and organizers on how to advocate for themselves and others, how to lead campaigns, and how to do scientific and legal research. She also makes people aware of how technology helps those with illness and disability stay connected with the world. After her ALS diagnosis, Brenner writes a blog post that includes a chart of what she can still do, and what she can no longer do. In a level-headed manner, she informs her readers that she will update this chart periodically. Not once does she mourn for her losses—instead Brenner always shows the world that she is still capable, still living, still loving, and still fighting. When things get too bad, this is when Brenner’s partner Susan Lampert takes over writing the blog posts, and this is when I started crying.
Who should read this book? Any young social justice warrior, anyone working in caring professions, and anyone thinking about using a cause to sell products or services. This compilation of blog posts will also serve as inspiration for the Millennial generation of Jews who may feel disconnected to their religion or culture due to the current political climate. Brenner often makes parallels between Judaism and her personal journey, including Yiddish words and how people or organizations perform them. One of my favorite entries, “How Do You Spell Chutzpah,” explains the meaning of “chutzpah” and how the Susan G. Komen foundation exemplified it by promoting the folly that getting mammograms, buying products with pink ribbons on them, or participating in Race for the Cure will cure breast cancer.
Brenner leaves us with this call to action, from her last post about breast cancer, “Context is Everything: Framing the Film ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’”:
People say to me that the pink ribbon—on lapels, on products as varied as toilet paper and hand guns—help raise awareness of breast cancer. My argument is that, thanks in part to the pink ribbon, everyone is now aware of breast cancer, unless they are living under a rock. Isn’t it time to move beyond awareness to activism to change the course of the epidemic?
…if buying a product with a pink ribbon on it would help end the epidemic, it should be over by now, given all the breast cancer shopping that people do. After all, if shopping could cure breast cancer, it would be cured by now.
The fight against breast cancer is far from over. Brenner challenges us to question existing systems that cause, study, treat, and sell breast cancer. Through her blog posts, she transfers her passion for this cause to us.
So Much To Be Done: The Writings of Brest Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner
Edited by Barbara Sjoholm
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816699445, 250 pp.