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Grim Determination : Using Confrontation to Raise Awareness of Breast Cancer


It was a grim sight. Stacked high in a Bel-Air garage were hundreds of plaster torsos cast from breast cancer survivors.

But for Jane Alsobrook, part of a group of breast cancer activists preparing to display the torsos in Westwood last weekend, aesthetics were never the point.

"This was never meant to be an art project," said Alsobrook, who is a breast cancer survivor. "This is meant to be a political (statement). It's for all women with breast cancer."

Alsobrook is a director of the Los Angeles Breast Cancer Alliance, the first grass-roots breast cancer advocacy group in Los Angeles. The 2-year-old alliance, headquartered in West Los Angeles, undertakes a range of projects. But perhaps its most dramatic is its "War Mammorial," the display of plaster torsos.

This year's exhibit (the first was held last year in the San Fernando Valley) took place outside the Federal Building in Westwood last weekend--the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month.

The sight was sobering. The plaster casts, taken from women who had gathered over the last year in "casting parties" throughout Los Angeles, were lined like tombstones along the Federal Building lawn on Wilshire Boulevard. The display was intended to draw attention to the 1,350 breast cancer deaths expected in Los Angeles this year.

The alliance, with a 15-member board of directors and more than 1,000 people on its mailing list, is nonprofit and decidedly grass roots.

Its goals, however, are lofty. The group wants increased funding for breast cancer research and access for all women to high-quality breast cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment and care. The alliance also seeks to "create public awareness of the breast cancer epidemic and make its eradication a national priority," one of its brochures says.

Although it is disputed whether breast cancer is an epidemic, the American Cancer Society estimates that this year 46,300 (46,000 women and 300 men) will die of breast cancer nationwide.

There is no known cause, cure or prevention for the disease.

Most of the group's members are breast cancer survivors, and although many have full-time jobs, breast cancer advocacy has consumed their lives.

Women and men in the group say they have adopted the head-on tactics of some AIDS activists.

The "War Mammorial" is certainly not subtle, with some casts taken from women who have undergone mastectomies and are missing one or both breasts.

Although some have voiced their discomfort with the graphic nature of such installations, alliance members are enthusiastic. And unapologetic.

"Women were dying of politeness and shame," Alsobrook said.

The plaster casting sessions also allow breast cancer survivors and their families to talk about their fears, share information and feel comfortable with their bodies, participants say.

Joanne Eacrett said: "The fact that these women are so committed to the cause (that) they let their bodies be seen and touched. It is a very moving experience and makes me recommit myself."

Along with other breast cancer activists, two alliance members, Alsobrook and Michelle Rakoff, met with President and Mrs. Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala last October to discuss a comprehensive breast cancer research plan.

The lobbying efforts of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, formed by activist groups that include the alliance, have paid off. The amount of federal breast cancer research funds increased from $90 million in 1991 to $410 million in 1993.

Currently, the alliance is compiling an anthology of personal stories from breast cancer survivors. The group plans to send the book, "A Living Legacy," to policy-makers in Washington.

Such efforts, group members say, will continue until the country mobilizes against breast cancer.

"I was afraid of growing old," said Eileen Brabender, president of the Alliance's board of directors, in her opening speech last weekend. "But I have had breast cancer, and now I am angry that maybe I won't grow old. So I want this war to be over for all of us. I want us just to go home and grow old--victorious and in peace."

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