Good Houskeeping Gets the I Hate Breast Cancer Seal of Disapproval

It is fashionable to make fun of certain magazines. Few people think Reader’s Digest ups their cool factor. And many women my age would snicker at the prospect of eagerly perusing Family Circle or Good Housekeeping.

And yet there are two things we should remember:

  1. Women do read womens’ magazines.
  2. So do an awful lot of other people.

Better Homes and Gardens , Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Family Circle  are among the top 10 US magazines with the highest circulation (paid and unpaid):

2005  total paid circulation

1. AARP the Magazine 22,675,655

2. AARP Bulletin 22,075,011

3. Reader’s Digest 10,111,773

4. TV Guide 8,211,581

5. Better Homes & Gardens 7,620,932

6. National Geographic 5,403,934

7. Good Housekeeping 4,634,763

8. Family Circle 4,296,370

9. Ladies’ Home Journal 4,122,460

10. Woman’s Day 4,048,799

(Here’s a more current list)

Given the massive circulations of these “service books” why do we give them a free pass when it comes to lousy breast cancer and health related  articles?

Good Housekeeping claims its content “reaches” 25 million people each month–granted it doesn’t claim that these teeming millions actually READ its print or electronic offerings, just that like the Sword of Damocles, that possibility is ever looming.

So it’s really annoying to read a Breast Cancer Tease article like editor-in-chief Rosemary Ellis’ “Family History” (October 2011).

Noting that October is breast cancer awareness month, Ellis recalls that her mother had “radical mastectomies on both breasts.” Ellis,then 9, recalls being terrified because she thought “benign” was a fancy word for “cancer”…”years later I learned the surgeon [thought my mother’s] breasts were ‘precancerous’ [and] I realized the news had been bad in a different way.

“Therefore, even though I don’t officially have a history of breast cancer in my family, I’ve always been on my guard…the reason for my mother’s mastectomy–having fibrocystic breasts–was proven years ago not to cause cancer…but what if the surgeon was right but just jumped the gun? What if my sisters and I really are predisposed? “

Hey, look it's also an inverted breast.

Most journalists follow the Inverted Pyramid structure: You state the really important facts up front. But Ellis favors an approach many of us honed telling ghost stories around the campfire at sleep away camp.

She is quick to tell us she was 9 years old when her mother had a radical double mastectomy. (“On both breasts,”)

Ellis then mentions her terror “because somehow, in the way children get confused by unfamiliar words” she thought benign was synonymous with cancer.


Ma Ellis did NOT die from breast cancer when Ellis was a little girl. Nor was further treatment apparently required.

But the key facts which could be paraphrased as  “My mother had fibrocystic breasts then deemed precancerous  and endured a radical mastectomy, something which wouldn’t be done today,” are buried deep in the editorial’s third paragraph.

Having revealed (albeit in a really confusing fashion) that her mother didn’t actually have breast cancer, Ellis then bolsters her breast cancer connection with:

“The fact that two of my closest friends lost their mothers to the disease and that several friends have themselves battled it in recent years doesn’t do anything to quell those fears [that my sisters and I might be predisposed to breast cancer].”

(I wonder if the Stretch Armstrong Award Committee for Outstanding Achievement in Tenuous Connections is still accepting nominations?)

Prior to joining Good Housekeeping, Ellis was senior vice president and editorial director of Prevention magazine.

I used to edit Surface Mount Technology magazine, but hey, even I can tell you most cancer  just happens–it’s sporadic vs. heriditary. The majority of people who develop breast cancer didn’t inherit an abnormal breast cancer gene and have no family history.

But about five percent of people have a genetic mutation which predisposes  them to cancer. Two abnormal genes BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two) are associated with a higher lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

Ellis notes that October issue features the latest in breast cancer research–amazingly it all fit on one page (49). But “latest research” sounds better than “Four Random Breast Cancer Press Releases Culled from the Associate Editor’s Email Box.”

There’s also “a heartening story of three generations in one family who all got [breast cancer] and survived.”  Tomomi Arikawa, a 31-year-old news editor for ABC, has Stage 2B cancer–what’s heartwarming about that? (There is much more that could be said about that article, but first things first.)

Ellis concludes with:

Things have changed pretty dramatically in the approach to this killer since I was  in third grade. Screening techniques, new medicines, and, for some women, genetic testing have made detection and successful treatment a far greater possibility than even two decades ago. And those friends who developed breast cancer in the past few years? Every one of them beat it. And is thriving.”


Sorry about that.

But THAT’s the message Ellis is giving 25 million people? That things are looking up in the world of breast cancer? What about the 155,000 of us people in the U.S. currently living with metastatic breast cancer? What about the 45,000 US people it will kill this year?

What about my mom who died at 54?

What about my friend Samantha who was barely 40 when she died?

What about my high school classmate Mary who died a few weeks ago?

What about my high school principal’s daughter, Jen, who died at age 37?

What about Olga? Irina? Maria? Elizabeth?

And too many others.

Where are our stories?

This is my message: Metastatic breast cancer claims 45,000 lives annually in the U.S. As one of 155,000 U.S. people living with MBC, I have a vested interest in educating people about this incurable disease and urging them to support research that helps people with advanced breast cancer live longer.

As we approach National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day, Oct. 13, I will be sharing stories of people who died from MBC as well as those who are living with every day, 24/7, 365 days a year.

I urge you to do the same.


7 thoughts on “Good Houskeeping Gets the I Hate Breast Cancer Seal of Disapproval

  1. Will do Sister. Not only metastatic disease, but other breast cancers that are not in the least benign, like inflammatory breast cancer, triple negative breast cancer, and…
    the 30% of women with early stage cancer who have recurrences that become metastatic disease! It’s time to take of the rose colored glasses and face the black behind the pink!

  2. Hi,

    I am following your blog and want to ask you to contribute a guest post to a new feature of my blog that hopefully will help raise the level of awareness about metastatic breast cancer through sharing information, research outcomes, clinical trials, and most importantly, how we can support women and men living with metastatic disease.

    Currently my blog targets newly diagnosed women and men, some of whom already have metastatic disease at the time of their initial diagnoses.

    Although I am a 2x survivor (2 primaries) and have met with and provided services to women in treatment for metastatic disease during my years as a patient navigator for the American Cancer Society, I cannot write from personal experience.

    That is why I am asking you to share your views on living with metastatic disease and what you see is needed from the medical and research communities as well as some concrete ways that those who read what you write can do to make a difference in supporting all who live with the disease.

    Thank you for considering my request.

    All the best,

    Jean (Campbell)

  3. carol miller says:

    I wish that there were words to convey the up’s and down’s of living with Stage IV disease. I would use those words not only to warn people and redirect money away from awareness to research but to tell people how “all consuming” this can be during the bad times.

  4. I don’t know which is more alarming — Ellis’s message, or the fact that more than 8 million Americans subscribe to TV guide! Yikes. I’m a little sick to my stomach after reading Ellis’s story, but I’m glad you put it out there. I’m NOT one of the 25 million people “reached” by her magazine. And with its useless, drivel-driven, and downright careless content, I’m sure glad.

  5. MJ says:

    Love the post Katherine. You always know what to say, and how to say it. But I think you got the statistic sentence reversed, please fix it (wink)

    MJ: Thanks for the catch, I did correct my transposition!

  6. Colleen says:

    Great post. I was just diagnosed with breast cancer (don’t even know the stage yet), but boy, have I learned a lot in the past 6 weeks! I always thought the pink ribbon campaigns infantilized women and made breast cancer look like some kind of cutesy “club”. Now I know just how many cold hard facts are glossed over. I’m marking October 13th on my calendar to help get the word out.

  7. Stacey says:

    I’m constantly amazed that articles such as Ellis’s still find their way to the public. It’s as if people just close their eyes to the realities of breast cancer, like a child, hoping if they don’t see the scary thing, it must not be there. But it is and I love your idea of sharing stories and I’ll do the same. Maybe if we do that enough times, enough people will open their eyes to MBC. Thanks, Katherine.

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