Women who shaped breast cancer history
Women Who Shaped (Breast Cancer) History

Women Who Shaped (Breast Cancer) History

Dana Donofree
4 min read

As Women's History Month comes to a close, it only seems appropriate to wrap up the month with a few of the women who impacted breast cancer history; the ones who inspired breast cancer patients in some way or another. These ladies made us look at our health and our bodies a little differently.


Tig shirtless walking around stage

During her 2014 HBO special "Boyish Girl Interrupted" comedian Tig Notaro shocked the audience when she took off her shirt for the sake of a laugh. Just two years earlier, Tig was diagnosed with breast cancer and later decided to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction. Although Tig did tie in her cancer treatment and subsequent mastectomy, the whole act must have been quite the surprise for the audience members not expecting a topless comedy show (especially since Tig performed the remaining 20 minutes without putting her shirt back on). 

After the ordeal of being a breast cancer patient, the last thing a woman wants to hear is she needs to have one more surgery. For whatever reasons they have, some women do not have reconstruction done following their mastectomies. What is so admirable about Tig's actions is the attitude she carried throughout the show. There was not a tinge of embarrassment or shame, but a great sense of humor about the whole joke. There is nothing to be ashamed of when you are flat and fabulous. 


Cover of Times Magazine of Angelina Jolie and the Angelina effect

Few of us missed reports on Angelina Jolie's decision to have a preventive double mastectomy in 2013 following her BRCA1 test results. She wrote about her experience and point of view in a widely read Op-ed piece in The New York Times called "My Medical Choice." Angelina's decision to fend off an 87% chance of acquiring breast cancer lead to an uptick in women making a similar decision for themselves. 

It's hard to deny the influence celebrities have on society, but it's a little surprising that influence would apply to medical procedures as well! This influence even picked up a name: The Angelina Jolie Effect. After publicly announcing her decision, not only were more women tested for BRCA, but more patients chose to have preventive mastectomies. A report showed that in about three years after Angelina's announcement, preventive mastectomy cases almost doubled. This does not come without noticeable rewards. In recent news, it was discovered that patients with the BRCA1 mutation can lower their chance of dying prematurely by having a preventive double mastectomy.

Her public decision made it easier for women to make the decision for themselves. For many women, it simply made them aware that they could even get tested for BRCA and what their options were. 

Igna Duncan Thronell showing off her mastectomy tattoos

If you have taken the time to explore pictures of mastectomy tattoos online, there's no doubt you would have seen these pictures of Inga Duncan Thornell. Before it had become almost a rite of passage for women with breast cancer, most had not heard of, let alone seen a mastectomy tattoo. In 2001, Inga's husband Scott posted pictures of her tattoo and the pictures belonged to the Internet from then on. 




While it might have come as a surprise to Inga to see her tattoos floated around the Internet, it must have been an even bigger surprise for women to discover mastectomy tattoos even existed. AnaOno founder Dana Donofree herself admitted to recognizing Inga's tattoos as some of the first she saw and a major inspiration for the tattoos she would later get for herself.

Herceptin trial participants

In the 1990s, options for terminal breast cancer patients were limited. When Doctor Slamon set up a trial of 15 women with the HER2 type of breast cancer, they gave themselves and many women to come a chance at a longer life.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of women have been benefited from taking Herceptin. In combination with other treatments, Herceptin has succeeded in significantly improving the life span of patients with HER2 positive cancer. The initial patients who faced an intimidating prognosis put their bodies, and remaining time on the line to give themselves and others a fighting chance. They knew what they were doing could not only help themselves, but other women with the very same fears; women they have never known and will never know.


Matuschka nude self portrait

After having a modified mastectomy performed on her right breast, Matuschka, an artist specializing in nude self-portraits, went back to her art. She created a stunning photograph of herself with her left breast completely exposed. Her photograph would go on to be on the cover of New York Times magazine in 1993. The standout photograph combined with such a major platform made waves and served as a reminder to the public of the results left after this procedure. As she said, "You can't look away anymore," people began to take a second glance.

As impactful as her image alone was, the story continues. Once Matuschka realized what her options truly were, she became frustrated. Rather than a mastectomy removing the breast entirely, Matuschka could have had a lumpectomy to treat her condition. She became an advocate for properly informing breast cancer patients of their options. The lesson learned is an aggravating one, as it remains an issue to this day. Even with medical advancements and moves to inform patients, many still do not fully understand what their conditions mean and what they can do about them. On the whole, Matuschka helped patients and the general public to understand the reality of breast cancer better.

Whether they changed the way women looked at their bodies or made them rethink their medical options, these are just some of the women who impacted our modern view of Breast Cancer History.


Revised 4/3/2018: Names of Matuschka and Thornell have been changed to correct previous error.

Dana Donofree
Dana Donofree

Founder and CEO of AnaOno. After a diagnosis of breast cancer in her late 20’s, Dana took her own lived experience and fashion design background and (re)designed intimates for those that have undergone breast surgery. Dana’s story has been published around the world in outlets like New York Times, BBC, Huffington Post, The Today Show, and more.