Elevate Difference

How Cancer Crossed the Color Line

Cancer—a disease signifying White civilization? A disease of the domesticated female? An indifferent, “democratic disease”? Or, a targeted attack on specific racial and ethnic communities? These varying assertions and many more have populated America’s cancer discourse over the last century, fading in and out as the dominant way to comprehend the disease’s victimization.

Perhaps easier now than ever to agree that cancer (in all its types) indiscriminately permeates all racial, gender, ethnic, religious (etc.) groups, Keith Wailoo, a professor of history and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers University, shows us how this was not always believed to be the case. How Cancer Crossed the Color Line traces the trajectory of cancer in America, from awareness, to prevention and treatment, drawing a critical link between medical advancements and socio-political shifts in gender and race understanding.

Beginning with early discussions from 1910-1930s, Wailoo notes the “birth of a dichotomy in American cancer awareness—[with] the emergence of a disparity between how experts, organizations, and communities worried about cancer awareness in white [women] as an individualized inner psychological issue, and how they worried over blacks as a demographic type, paying little attention to inner sensibilities.” This dichotomy is only the beginning, however. Drawing on a myriad of primary sources, from medical findings, popular culture, individual stories, and political advocacy, Wailoo makes a case for just how entrenched and beholden cancer rhetoric is (and has been) to dynamic shifts in our cultural understanding of race and gender.

Roughly moving decade to decade, How Cancer Crossed the Color Line charts the impact that historical events like World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as social shifts like acknowledging ethnic diversity and socioeconomic disparities, have had on cancer awareness. Scrutinizing race and gender’s varying impact on dictating medical research, analysis of findings, and diffusion into the public sphere, Wailoo posits that although cancer is an indiscriminate disease, it has never really existed in a vacuum, as it has always been studied and interpreted by people, unavoidably beholden to a certain set of values and beliefs.

Although not necessarily a light read, Wailoo does an excellent job of conveying a dense amount of information in a comprehensible way, for academics and non-academics alike. And for those of you who may be a bit more academic, the text is meticulously cited, providing a wealth of primary source material in the endnotes for continued investigation.

Bottom line, I love this book. I admit, I am a nerd who really appreciates all efforts that seek to debunk the notion that race, gender, sexuality, and such do not play fundamental roles in dictating how we have come to understand aspects of our modern lives that we too often believe to be “beyond” identity and group differences—like medicine, science, and even technology. Despite seeming to be infallible sources of truth, each of these areas are unavoidably saturated with and influenced by our sociocultural beliefs and discriminations.

Keith Wailoo’s How Cancer Crossed the Color Line is an enlightening read, suggesting that even if accounting for “other” paradigms may make for a far more murky understanding of the already enigmatic cancer (in this case), only in the murkiness can actual progress be made moving forward. Most certainly there is still a "war on cancer" to be fought, but as Wailoo impressively highlights, it is as critical, if not more so, to continually scrutinize not just how we are fighting but also for whom.

Written by: Alison Veith, February 4th 2011