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Breast Cancer Wars : Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America 1st Edition

10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195142617
ISBN-10: 0195142616
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sure to be controversial, this prodigiously researched medical and cultural history examines deeply held views on the treatment of breast cancer, particularly the societal embrace of a "war on cancer" rather than an emphasis on prevention. Lerner (a physician and medical historian at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons), whose mother developed breast cancer, focuses, in large part, on the rise and fall of the radical mastectomy pioneered by surgeon William Halsted. To prevent what he theorized was the centrifugal spread of cancer to the lymph nodes, Halsted determined that it was necessary to remove not only the breast but also the nodes and two chest-wall muscles, leaving the patient feeling disfigured and with serious side effects. Lerner details the arguments that many in the scientific community made against this eventually discredited theory and against radical mastectomy, including those advanced by surgeon George Crile. Crile favored less aggressive operations and disagreed with the cancer establishment's relentless publicity campaign for early detection. He and others were convinced that it was the biology of the cancer, rather than how early it was diagnosed, that determined whether or not a tumor would metastasize. Barron also explores the strong impact the 1970s women's movement had on cancer treatment, with women demanding more information from physicians and input into their treatment options. Provocative and highly engaging, Lerner's book presents an important contribution to medical history; moreover, he offers insights into areas that most books about breast health and disease do not probe. Illus. Agent, Michele Rubin. (May)Forecast: A controversial book on a hot-button issue, this may not be widely read, but it will be widely discussed.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Military metaphors have long been used in promoting breast cancer awareness, prevention, and treatment. In The Breast Cancer Wars, Lerner (medicine, Columbia Univ.) presents a remarkably readable understanding of distinctly American attitudes toward the disease and the ways in which American culture and society have influenced its treatment. Restricting his history to the 20th century, with a focus on the years from 1945 to 1980, Lerner begins by describing surgical pioneer William Halsted's radical mastectomy in a medical and historical context. Halsted's treatment was considered by some to be not radical enough and later, as the century progressed, was thought far too extensive. Lerner deftly profiles breast cancer survivors, celebrity spokeswomen, surgeons, and researchers and even makes the concept of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), first introduced in the United States in 1971, understandable to the lay reader. There are a few minor problems in this extensively researched and annotated book some medical terminology, which could be more extensively defined in the glossary, is explained in parentheses, and concerns over the environmental causes of breast cancer are mentioned only in passing. Ellen Leopold's A Darker Ribbon (LJ 10/1/99) covered a similar time period using a feminist, activist approach. Lerner's book is essential for women's studies and history of medicine collections, but no public or academic library could go wrong in adding it to its collection. (Index not seen.) Martha E. Stone, Treadwell Lib., Boston
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 31, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195142616
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195142617
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 1.3 x 5.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #581,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Barron H. Lerner is a Professor of Medicine and Population Health at the New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Lerner received his M.D. in 1986 and his Ph.D. in history in 1996. His book, The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, published by Oxford University Press, received the William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine and was named one of the 26 most notable books of 2001 by the American Library Association. Dr. Lerner has published extensively in scholarly journals and contributes essays to the the Science Times section of The New York Times, the Times' "Well" blog, Slate, and the Huffington Post. He has also appeared on numerous NPR broadcasts, including "Fresh Air," "All Things Considered" and "Science Friday." Dr. Lerner's latest book, "The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics," was published by Beacon Press in May 2014. You can follow Dr. Lerner at or @barronlerner on Twitter.

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Barbara Seaman on July 18, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Like many others who have discovered this treasure of a highly readable but profoundly illuminating book. I fully agree with Dr. Susan Love, who called it a "riveting" story and "one of the best books I have read in a long time." As someone who has long been active in the women's health movement I am sure that THE BREAST CANCER WARS will become a fixture on the short list of "must have" titles for any patient or advocate. Dr. Barron Lerner is a gifted writer, a caring clinician(Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) a distinguished PhD medical historian, as well as the devoted son of a breast cancer survivor whose "quiet perseverance in the face of a terrifying disease has been an inspiration." Thus, he brings a thoroughly rounded perspective to the history of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that (to my knowledge) no other male physician has ever attempted, much less achieved. His fascinating descriptions of the central role that activist patients have played in forcing doctors to treat breast cancer more humanely, and, yes, believe it or not- more scientifically, is a major contribution to modern social and science history. Dr. Lerner's title is well-chosen, as he escorts us through the maze of controversies and "wars" that mark breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention, showing them to be dramatic, amazing, frustrating, sometimes ridiculous, and often highly unfair to patients. While THE BREAST CANCER WARS is not a "how to" book it provides women- and men-with a wealth of necessary background and information that will enable them to become far more savvy and sophisticated on every aspect of any breast cancer discussion.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By greensleeves on October 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Barron Lerner's "Breast Cancer Wars" joins Ellen Leopold's "Darker Ribbon" as an eyeopening look backstage at the Breast Cancer Follies in America. They are both important books, and make many of the same points, but if you are of a mind to read only one history of this disease, make it this one.

Leopold's book, written from a frankly feminist (and that's OK)point of view is dry and academic. But as a frank feminist myself, I must say I much preferred Lerner's lively, even juicy, warts-and-all look at the nature of American surgeons and how they make their decisions. But be warned: like they say about watching sausage being made, it ain't pretty. In fact the chapter on super-radical surgery that was the fashion for a, thankfully short, period of time in the 1950's upset me so much that I couldn't sleep that night. Do NOT read that part at bedtime! The phrase "human remnant" used by one famous surgeon in referring to his patients - or what was left of them when he got through with them - still gives me nightmares.

Lerner is himself a doctor - he teaches internal medicine and medical history at Columbia, so he has an insider's knowledge and interpretive skills that Leopold lacks. In detailing why, exactly, it took nearly half a century for American surgeons to even agree to scientifically test the efficacy and safety of the radical Halsted mastectomy, Lerner exposes the thought processes that dominate the surgical profession. Trust me, you will never look at your doctors the same way.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Robinson on July 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In trying to understand and have an appreciation for the larger perspective of Medicine, Doctors and the Medical/Cancer Establishment, I found "Breast Cancer Wars..." to be the most insightful and helpful book of its kind that I have read. And in seeking to understand my disease (Leukemia), and the process I have been going through, I have read dozens of books on Health, Healing, Cancer, Medicine, the Medical Establishment etc...
Dr. Lerner provides a comprehensive, readable and above all balanced book in which he examines all the factors which impact on the development of a cancer treatment in the U.S. And he maintains this sense of balance while examining what is one of the most emotional, sensitive and controversial areas in all of cancer diagnosis and treatment; Breast Cancer and the Radical Mastectomy.
What particularly distinguishes his writing is the way in which he is able to provide a clear, detailed history and narrative while exploring the human, cultural, political, societal and gender-related issues that have impacted on the development and treatment of Breast Cancer.
In this extremely controversial and politicized area, he does not look for, or find a villain; his is not an attempt to blame or demonize. And that is a great relief.
Instead, in discussing the individuals involved - the physicians who first espoused and continued to advocate the use of Radical Mastectomies and those who opposed it, the prominent women who elected this procedure for themselves, the women who began to oppose the Radical Mastectomy and who challenged the medical system, the women who used their influence and resources to initiate important cancer and support organizations - Dr.
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