The social construction of the breast cancer epidemic

Soc Sci Med. 1998 Apr;46(7):907-18. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(97)00218-9.


The age-adjusted incidence of breast cancer among U.S. women rose by over 30% during the 1980s. Several population-based studies have concluded that most or all of this observed increase is an artifact of the lead time afforded by mammography screening rather than an indication of a true increase in the rate at which women develop the disease. We conducted a study of the social construction of breast cancer trends as a public health problem in popular U.S. magazines. We documented trends in popular magazine article coverage of breast cancer between 1980 and 1995. In addition, we analyzed the content of a convenience sample of 228 popular magazine articles published between 1987 and 1995, focusing on a subsample of articles (n = 91) that mention the increase in breast cancer incidence. Our results show that the increase in incidence is commonly portrayed as a mysterious, unexplained epidemic occurring primarily among young, professional women in their prime years. Many articles suggest that recent changes in women's behavior such as increases in delayed childbearing, nulliparity, the use of oral contraceptives, induced abortion, and the use of tobacco and alcohol are related to the recent upsurge in the disease. The portrayal of the breast cancer epidemic in the U.S. popular press reflects a strong social desire to create order and control over a frightening disease. In the process, a common message is that the behaviors and choices of young, nontraditional women especially those related to fertility control-have led to pathological repercussions within their bodies, which in turn may be responsible for great disorder and pathology at the societal level in the epidemic of breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Body Image
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Mammography / statistics & numerical data
  • Periodicals as Topic*
  • Sick Role
  • Social Adjustment
  • Social Values*
  • United States / epidemiology