Breast Cancer Narratives as Public Rhetoric

Genre Itself and the Maintenance of Igorance


  • Judy Z. Segal University of British Columbia



Rhetoric, Genre, Breast Cancer, Narrative, Ignorance


This paper explores questions of the permissible and the impermissible in breast cancer narratives. It deploys (inter alia) a theory of discourse and counterdiscourse to argue that the genre itself of the personal narrative performs a regulatory function in public discourse on cancer. The paper is inspired by an idea introduced into science studies by Schiebinger and Proctor—the idea of agnotology: the cultural production of ignorance. The paper argues that ignorance about cancer is maintained, in part, by the rehearsal of stories that have standard plots and features, and that suppress or displace other stories. The paper turns on examples of both conventional and unconventional stories. It focuses on Barbara Ehrenreich’s renegade cancer story and its public reception, and Wendy Mesley’s renegade cancer television documentary and the public reception of that. The paper seeks to contribute to genre studies by analyzing instances of a genre of public discourse, and suggesting the nature of the social action performed by the genre itself.

Author Biography

  • Judy Z. Segal, University of British Columbia

    Judy Z. Segal is Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches the history and theory of rhetoric as well as the rhetoric of science and medicine.


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How to Cite

Segal, J. Z. (2008). Breast Cancer Narratives as Public Rhetoric: Genre Itself and the Maintenance of Igorance. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 3(1), 3-23.