Suppressing Awareness Regarding Breast Cancer

A few weeks ago, I was in Portland to give a talk to the local guild of the Catholic Medical Association about how the medical profession has – like many if not most others today – given itself over to the ideological aims of the wider culture. There are several such aims, to be sure, but chief among them has been the installation of unbridled sexual autonomy.

Commentators such as Mary Eberstadt have given a name to what this effort has wrought: the New Intolerance. Without the Sexual Revolution, we would not have the kind of intolerance we are afflicted with today, in which the Little Sisters of the Poor find themselves in court, and Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich finds himself ousted from the very company he founded. That’s what can happen to those who withhold assent to the regnant laissez-faire sexual creed.

Since the event I spoke at was scheduled in the middle of October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as we cannot escape noticing), I decided to talk about the reproductive risk factors for breast cancer that are studiously sidestepped in the public domain, which defeats the purpose of any campaign ostensibly designed to raise awareness.

I’ve written about these matters on a number of occasions in TCT and elsewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. In a nutshell, however, giving birth earlier rather than later (or never) and breastfeeding are protective, whereas the use of oral contraceptives and induced abortion are harmful, even if public health authorities such as the National Cancer Institute scandalously deny the latter.

Pragmatic observations of this nature are not easily brooked. Not even concern about women’s health is enough to overcome the New Intolerance. The same must be said about the recent Planned Parenthood videos: not even our innate revulsion over them has been enough to decelerate the sway of the New Intolerance.

Talk of actual prevention of breast cancer, rather than screening, is mainly limited to things like diet and exercise, even though the reproductive risk factors are much more consequential than, say, eating broccoli every night and fiber every morning. Breast cancer certainly has many causes, but which factors do you suppose most likely account for the sharp rise in incidence since the early 1970s?

For that reason alone, they deserve far greater attention. Indeed, highlighting them is of added urgency considering the quite limited benefits of that long-touted “early detection” measure, the mammogram. Recent international reports have recommended that current screening programs be scrapped, as they may well do more harm than good, or have concluded that, in any event, they do not contribute to reduced mortality. In fact, just the other day, the American Cancer Society came out with revised guidelines, essentially ratifying the view that their usefulness is more limited than long supposed.


The relevance of these reproductive factors is not widely known, even among highly committed Catholic physicians. So in that sense I wasn’t “preaching to the choir”; it was, however, a friendly audience, which is something to be grateful for even if it is also true that honest exchanges with less friendly audiences should also be pursued.

Yet the question remains: how do you make headway with those whose prior commitment to the sexual revolution predisposes them to reject anything (even science) that threatens to undermine its supposed goodness? Or with authorities who know that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer but won’t admit it because it is too politically sensitive? They know that actually coming forward with the truth would put them in harm’s way.

The late 19th and early 20th century Italian doctor and saint, Joseph Moscati, knew what it was like to live a life of science as a man of faith in a hostile culture. His counsel should be broadcast widely today as it applies to those from all walks of life:

Love the truth, show yourself as you are, without pretenses and fears. . .and if the truth causes you persecution, accept it, and if it causes you some torment, bear it. And if for the sake of truth you should sacrifice yourself and your life, be strong in your sacrifice.

That timeless pearl of wisdom is really the only way to proceed, given that some interpret the truth as an attack on their very dignity, or what they hold dear. They may not be prepared to budge, even if they hear it said that moral truth is essential to finding real happiness and peace.

Yet there are those who are open to the truth or who are beginning to perceive it, either via the intellectual route or by painful experience. Since openness to the truth remains a possibility for everyone, and as Dominican friar and bioethicist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco has argued, we should not speak of contentious bioethical issues without also speaking of mercy. This, I think, is not altogether inconsistent with what Pope Francis has in mind for the upcoming Year of Mercy.

Speaking the truth in and of itself is an act of mercy, and a necessary precondition for deeper reconciliation and healing. Yet despair may linger over finding the kind of healing that can unsaddle the heaviest of burdens and sooth the most searing of wounds.

According to St. Faustina’s Diary, Jesus insists He does not “want to punish aching mankind,” but to heal it. He wants us to know His mercy is greater than our own individual sins and those of the entire world. He goes so far as to say: “Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give me pleasure if you hand over to me all your troubles and griefs.”

The only reason these words could be consoling is if they are also true. Deo Gratias!


Robert Royal lecture poster_screen2

Click on the image to expand and learn the details of Robert Royal’s lecture tonight at New York University

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley is senior fellow with the National Catholic Bioethics Center. With Jokin de Irala, M.D., he is the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Hanley's and not those of the NCBC.

  • Stanley Anderson

    “Yet the question remains: how do you make headway with those whose prior commitment to the sexual revolution predisposes them to reject anything (even science) that threatens to undermine its supposed goodness?”

    A tough question to answer. One approach I have tried to take (and mentioned here in the past) is to try to turn that “revolution” on its head. By that I mean that I have tried to emphasize that it is the proponents of the so-called sexual revolution who, as opposed to the Christian morality that they hurl the term at, are the real “prudes” about sexuality.

    Instead of enjoying the solid, complex, full-bodied, and life-long aspects of life-affirming and baby-producing and social-impacting family life (I realize I used “life” three times there — intentional), they prefer, in effect, to squint at rice-paper thin, delicate, already dim and ever-fading pencil-line stick-figure sketches of mere electrical synapses in the brain, directed by whatever dead or dying physical stimulation they can find, as long as it can be discarded after use.

    Ok, well, maybe one could, to emphasize the “mercy” aspect you mention, be less caustic (and less wordy) in the latter part there. And of course an appeal to a fuller enjoyment of “real, solid” sex instead of a paper-thin image of it pales in comparison to the holiness and morality of sex in its proper place, but my thought is to somehow first get past that modern ingrained idea that free-sex is somehow richer and fuller than the old fuddy-duddy repressed “married only” sex.

    I don’t know how successful such an approach can be in a society as jaded as ours, but it does at least allow a more integrated introduction to the idea that contraception itself is one of those hammers that pounds full-bodied sex into a flat-paper-thin image rather than the liberation from sexual inhibitions force it is touted to be.

  • George Sim Johnston

    I teach marriage preparation in New York, and when I get to the subject of contraception, among other things I say the following: Not long ago, in a column in the Spectator, Charles Moore wondered why so many women he knew in their fifties have breast cancer. it didn’t used to be this way. And Mr. Moore is right: in the USA, back in 1960, one out of 25 women got breast cancer; now it is one out of eight. To answer his question, I point out that Mr. Moore might consult an October 2006 study by the Mayo Clinic entitled “Oral Contraceptive Use as a Risk Factor for Premenopausal Breast Cancer”, which finds “an increase risk of breast cancer across various patterns of OC use.” Or he could go to the website of the cancer prevention agency of the United Nations, which in 2011 declared the contraceptive pill a “category one” carcinogen for breast cancer, just as cigarette smoke is a “category one” carcinogen for lung cancer.

    But as Mr. Hanley points out, sexual liberation trumps concerns over women’s health every time.

  • mishypic

    Yes! The New Intolerance, wow, that is perfect. And I adore that quote from Moscati. I will definitely have to commit that one to memory. Thanks for speaking the truth!

  • Twinkle5

    Thank you for your couragous article. I do not hesitate to speak the truth concerning the dangers of abortion and oral contraception to anyone with ears to hear (our 4 daughters get the brunt of it). Our “freedoms” are sending women to the grave!! And hardly anyone lifts a finger to learn the dangers involved in popping birth control or having abortions. I often wonder about all the women who clamour to walk in the Susan J Komen or those who have breast cancer if they have even an inkling of knowledge pertaining to how their choices have led to women’s poor health.

  • watchman

    I have seen this dynamic in other areas too, that is, when people refuse to admit that their behaviors are having deleterious effects on their health or living conditions. People will find every excuse to justify their addictions, habits or willfulness. When they face the ultimate disaster, perhaps they will wake up. But we must keep trying to do the right thing before God no matter how many others are doing their own thing. Please keep up your good work for the Lord and humanity and do not be afraid.

  • Tom More

    Thanks so much for reminding and refocusing with such wisdom.

  • mcblanc

    Please allow me (a believing, practicing cradle catholic, wife and mother of two daughters both born in the 1980’s) to briefly point out what you edit out of your version of, supposedly, “Whole Truth About Sex”…

    #1 – Y’all’ve made NO mention of nor have shed any on that blind “corner” that has …ahem… Traditionally Received The Protection of Silence IN These Matters By Church Culture… and that–btw… contributed greatly to the great cultural upheavals of the 1960’s–The Male Half of These Equations.

    #2 – The message concerning the breast cancer causing “evils” (LOSE “THIS” TERM–It’s An UN-Necessary & OFF-Putting Redundance) of contraceptives & abortions might be better received if your focus wasn’t so narrowed.

    Examine the entire context of the 20th century for a more comprehensive & therefore, more sympathetic analysis of the what’s, when’s, how’s & why’s of–WOTINTHAHELL HAPPENED–leading up to + in the aftermath of WW II.

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      If you were to write in Standard English you would be much more successful in communicating your point and would do a favour to your readers.

      • mcblanc

        Yes. I’ve been told that before and have had ample opportunities to evaluate the advice and what I have found is…

        It is, quite simply, NOT true.

        • Evangeline1031

          Then why, dear, is your response to Mr. Hennigan so much clearer than your initial comment? Your initial comment is full of heat, but you need more light. Following that recommendation may help. God bless.

    • The message concerning the breast cancer causing “evils” (LOSE “THIS” TERM–It’s An UN-Necessary & OFF-Putting Redundance)

      I am honestly trying to fathom what you mean here. Which term is Mr. Hanley meant to “lose”? He doesn’t use the word “evils” anywhere in his article. How can an absent term be redundant?

      And what is the relevance of the “Male Half” to your argument? Women freely choose to take contraceptives because (among other things) it allows them to have (ostensibly) consequence-free sex, control their fertility, and achieve independence from male support. Some men have certainly benefited handsomely from the sexual revolution, but a great number of others have found themselves out in the cold since women of traditionally marriageable age are out playing the field. Women control the sexual marketplace, but unlike in previous eras, they no longer need to discriminate carefully to avoid getting pregnant by an attractive but unsuitable man.

  • Evangeline1031

    Great article and thought provoking. I am sure you are correct about this. We need to share this information with the younger set, who should be told of the health implications with these decisions. It is an outrage they are not informed.

  • I assure you, ma’am, that my nerves remain serenely unstruck. Having been granted an abundance (or perhaps an excess) of masculine detachment, I am rarely troubled by the opinions of others, however much I might disagree with them.

    Your implicit question was, why focus on the female side of the equation when discussing contraception? I cannot speak for Mr Hanley, but since his article was on the taboo topic of the health risks to women arising from contraception, it seems only sensible to make women the focus.

    My argument was a little different: women in western societies have for many generations controlled male access to sex (absent occasional abuses). In the pre-contraception era, this was a good thing: women had much more to lose from an unwise coupling than men did, so they tended, by and large, to choose carefully and realistically. But the twin forces of feminism and contraception have overturned that old incentive structure, and young women are now encouraged to spend their most fertile years “playing the field”, exploring their sexuality, and developing careers. High-status men tend to benefit mightily from this state of affairs, since they have a never-ending supply of women competing for their attention, but middle- and low-status men–who in the old days would have secured wives appropriate to their station in life–are losing out, and many retreat from the marriage market altogether into the world of porn and video games.

    Of course, I am aware that a sizeable number of men and women do not engage in this kind of behavior, despite the cultural pressure to do so, but I am speaking of broad social trends here. As a middle-aged, happily married, relatively high-status man, I have no immediate personal stake in this question, but I am concerned for my sons’ prospects in the brave new world we inhabit. Most of their female peers have been indoctrinated into the view that they should engage in sex freely and often in the name of self-determination, and it is much more difficult than it used to be, pre-contraception, to find a woman who exercises the old virtues of self-respect and hard-headedness.

    In short, female incentives have changed dramatically as a result of contraception and feminism, while male incentives have changed far less. That is why women are properly the focus of these discussions.