September Issue: Cancer and the Emotions

In our September issue, Dr. Noelle Dückmann Gallagher (Department of English, American Studies, and Creative Writing, University of Manchester) brings us Cancer and the emotions in 18th-century literature. Below we provide both a text summary and a video summer from Dr. Gallagher.


In this essay, I suggest that the rhetoric of today’s breast cancer culture—with its sentimental depictions of women in pink and its encouragement of “positive thinking” in patients—may actually have had its roots in the literature of the long eighteenth century.  While cancer had long been connected with the emotions in early modern culture, the eighteenth century saw it associated with intense positive emotions (like love) as well as negative feelings (like jealousy or rage). I argue that as the 1700s wore on, breast cancer in particular became an important means of dramatizing the dangers of excessive feeling, as moralizing treatises and sentimental novels associated the development of breast cancer or ovarian mesothelioma with female emotional self-indulgence, and portrayed feminine self-control as the only form of resistance against the disease.  I conclude by suggesting that these eighteenth-century exhortations to stoicism anticipate today’s “pink ribbon” culture, with its insistence that women with cancer “stay positive” no matter how angry or distressed they may feel.


Noelle Duckmann Gallagher is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester.  She works on the representation of the body and disease in eighteenth-century print culture. Her book Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination was published by Yale University Press in 2019.

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