Lopsided Suzy with the Baby Fine Hair: Black Women and Transformed Bodies after Breast Cancer
Wilson, Kanetha Brynn
This dissertation uses a qualitative approach to study this important topic in the area of intersectionality and health. My primary data are semi-structured interviews I conducted with 49 black breast cancer survivors in three Southern cities: Nashville, TN, Durham, NC, and Atlanta, GA. (Data collection was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Pilot Mini-Grant program.) Black women die at much higher rates from breast cancer than white women do, yet their stories are fairly unknown. Moreover, given the gendered nature of breast cancer, the illness presents a good context for exploring femininity and health, as they intersect with race and social class, in the contemporary United States. In this study, I aim to elucidate psychosocial and contextual factors that affect the experiences of black women with breast cancer. The first chapter explores breast loss and reconstructive surgery. Modifications of the breasts were both physically and mentally distressing for women in my study. Mental distress associated with breast loss and reconstruction transcended social class. However, incidents of physical distress were more prevalent among lower status women, who were more likely to report infections, delays between procedures, ER visits, and pain. The second chapter focuses on hair loss, finding that gender and race both have important implications for how black women processed hair loss from chemotherapy. For women in general, decisions about hair styles are important for identity and social interactions. Therefore, the loss of hair due to treatment for cancer can be especially traumatic for women. From an intersectional and interactionist perspective, hair is an essential tool black women can use to show their ability to perform gender “correctly.” In the third chapter, I focus on the salience of spousal and family support for the health of women who have experienced cancer. I draw on interview data in which women talk about emotional support and instrumental from spouses and family when faced with the distress associated with cancer treatments.