Book review: So Much To Be Done: The Writings of Breast Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner, edited by Barbara Sjoholm

So Much to Be DoneBrenner, Barbara. So Much To Be Done: The Writings of Breast Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner. Barbara Sjoholm, ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 256 p. PB. $22.95. ISBN 9780816699445.

During her 61 years, the late Barbara Brenner (1951-2013) was a lawyer, civil rights activist, and health care crusader, leading the San Francisco-based grassroots organization Breast Cancer Action (BCA) for over 10 years, following her own early-40s experience with breast cancer. After retiring from BCA, Brenner was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, and died two years later.

Brenner was also a superb writer, and this collection showcases some of her best efforts, including pieces from the BCA’s newsletter and from her own later blog, “Healthy Barbs,” focusing on her years living with ALS. The articles collected here begin in 1996 and offer an interesting historical perspective on issues surrounding health care in general and breast cancer in particular.

Under Brenner’s leadership, BCA was not your average garden-variety advocacy group. As she described it: “BCA looks at the cultural, social, political and economic context in which breast cancer arises, and challenges the premises that keep us from seeing clearly what needs to happen to end this scourge.”

Brenner would thus take stern exception to- verging on hatred for- what she characterized as the “pinkwashing” of breast cancer (e.g.., “slapping pink ribbons on products that may not generate money for research and may even harm women’s health”), which she also believed tended to “pretty up” the disease and obscure its underlying medical and societal issues. The term “pinkwashing” became part of BCA’s controversial “Think Before You Pink” campaign, begun in 2002.

Brenner’s primary target in that campaign was the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and arguably, some of the strongest pieces in this anthology spring from her deep animus towards that group and its allegedly misguided mission and activities. Throughout, Brenner is simultaneously heartfelt and acerbic, which makes this collection both engrossing and darkly humorous.

When Brenner contracted ALS, her writing shifted to personal accounts of her daily life, shared with her female partner of over 35 years. Eventually, she became unable to communicate normally, but relied on technology for expressing her ever-present opinions to the very end of her days.
Barbara Brenner was an articulate voice for many—a tilter at establishment windmills who was impossible to ignore. This book is recommended for health and memoir collections, and for anyone who appreciates incisive, powerful writing. Additionally, a fine complement to this book is the 2011 DVD documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., featuring many on-camera remarks from Brenner.

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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