The Breast Cancer Diaries. Directed by Linda Pattillo. Los Angeles: Seventh Art, 2006.
It would take more than 1.2 million documentaries to capture the stories of all the women and men who are diagnosed with breast cancer throughout the world each year. In The Breast Cancer Diaries, Ann Murray Paige allows viewers inside the emotionally intense world of a breast cancer patient. Directed by Linda Pattillo and assembled by an all-female production team, the documentary focuses on Murray’s heart-wrenching journey, delivered through the testimonial narratives she gives as she lives through a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Paige was shocked to discover a lump in her breast during a self-exam. Thrust into “life as a cancer patient,” Paige reveals the way her identity was transformed by the cancer. Paige is incredibly honest, open, and courageous in telling this story. She allows cameras to record her experience, showing her ups and downs through surgery, the anxieties of her small children, the pain of losing her hair, the importance of her husband’s devotion, and the humor it takes to get through it all. Her favorite button reads “Cancer Sucks” and it exemplifies her defiance in the face of the disease.
After going through a double mastectomy and opting not to get breast implants, Paige offers moving commentary on the powerful layers of complexity she feels. In a culture in which breasts are so often equated with sexuality and femininity, she shows how all those notions can be stripped bare when confronted with the gravity of disease. Viewers in the United States rarely see scenes like those in this documentary, in which Paige allows cameras to record her shopping for breast adhesives, throwing away her bras, and discussing the importance of her husband’s desire after surgery.
Those interested in teaching this documentary in the feminist classroom or in college courses in general should know that this is primarily a personal narrative rather than a political examination of breast cancer. The insights Paige offers into breast cancer are specific to her story and thus the revelations she gives us are limited to her own perspective as a financially secure woman with access to health care with the choice to be a stay at home mother. The Breast Cancer Diaries does not attempt to offer an analysis of the work activists have done to show the environmental sources of cancer or the disparate political effects of the disease based on socioeconomic background nor does it present a story that accounts for the racial and socioeconomic dynamics at the core of the U.S. and world health care systems.1 Yet Paige does point out injustices and inhumane policies of the U.S. health care system. For example, she talks about the “drive-through mastectomy” policy, in which women are discharged from the hospital twenty-four hours after this severely difficult surgery. She also comments on the limited information available to cancer patients; reflecting on her choice to undergo radiation treatment, Paige meditates out loud on how little we know about the long-term effects of these methods.
Paige’s web site has updates on her status and insightful blog entries. Her tale is a raw and revealing window into how one individual filtered the reality of this disease and, when used with a variety of sources, it can have a profound influence on many students.2 Her story invites compassion and thus provides one jumping off point for students to explore and discuss the many sided prism of breast cancer.
1 While higher percentages of white women are diagnosed with breast cancer, African American women are much more likely to die of the disease because of lack of access to health care and late diagnosis.
2 Suggested readings include Devra Davis, The Secret History of the War on Cancer (Basic Books, 2007); Barbara Delinsky, Uplift: Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors (Washington Square Press, 2003); Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, Beyond Slash, Burn, and Poison: Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action (Rutgers University Press, 2004); J. Nudelman, B. Taylor, N. Evans, J. Rizzo, J. Gray, C. Engel, and M. Walker, “Policy and Research Recommendations Emerging from the Scientific Evidence Connecting Environmental Factors and Breast Cancer,” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 15 (2009): 79-101; Barron H. Lerner, The Breast Cancer War: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and The UK Working Group on the Primary Prevention of Breast Cancer, “Breast Cancer: An Environmental Disease—the Case for Primary Prevention” (http://www.nomorebreastcancer.org.uk/assets/main_v1.pdf), 31, 34-35, 65, 93.