Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …


Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

IMPACT FACTOR 2018: 0.509

CiteScore 2018: 0.23

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.232
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.478

Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca: Classe A

See all formats and pricing
More options …
Volume 2019, Issue 227


The semiotics of breast cancer: Signs, symptoms, and sales

John Tredinnick-Rowe
  • Corresponding author
  • Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2019-02-13 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2016-0107


This paper analyses the immunological response of breast cancer patients through the lens of medical semiotics. From this perspective both psychological and physiological symptoms are treated as a set of transitive signs. The symptomatic journey of breast cancer patients was documented through an ethnographic engagement with a breast cancer charity. This journey consists of diagnosis, treatment and remission, where both the physical and psychological trauma maybe irreversible. Equally the genetic disposition of each patient and the variability of the treatment give rise to a plethora of possible immunological responses. The case study organization provided both therapeutic treatment but also sold oncology products to its patients, matching the products’ composition to the specific immunological responses caused by breast cancer treatment, e.g., brittle skins or hair loss, etc. This paper explores how the varied and transient nature of immunological semiosis is identified and commoditized into an economic process. This challenging social context is of interest from a semiotic stand point because it offers a singular paradigm to explain the evolution of signs and symptoms into sales.

Keywords: medical semiotics; breast cancer; symptomology; Derrida; medical anthropology; legisigns


  • Ablamowicz, Halina. 1994. Shame as abject communication: A semiotic view. American Journal of Semiotics 11(3/4). 155–170.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • American Cancer Society. 2014. What is lymphedema? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/lymphedema/whateverywomanwithbreastcancershouldknow/lymphedema-with-breast-cancer-what-is-lymphedema (accessed 10 December 2014).

  • Anita Care. 2001. Tender body care after breast surgery In Austria: Anita – Unique bodywear.Google Scholar

  • Aragno, Anna. 2011. The mind’s farthest reach: Dream-telepathy in psychoanalytic situations: Inquiry and hypothesis. Signs 5. 29–70.Google Scholar

  • Baer, Eugen. 1988. Medical semiotics. Lanham: University Press of America.Google Scholar

  • Berterö, Carina & Margaret Chamberlain Wilmoth. 2007. Breast cancer diagnosis and its treatment affecting the self: A meta-synthesis. Cancer Nursing 30(3). 194–202.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Bodicoat, Danielle H., Minouk J. Schoemaker, Michael E. Jones, Emily McFadden, James Griffin, Alan Ashworth & Anthony J. Swerdlow. 2014. Timing of pubertal stages and breast cancer risk: The Breakthrough Generations Study. Breast cancer research 16(1). R18.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Questions de sociologie. Paris: Les Edition du Minuit.Google Scholar

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. L’ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.Google Scholar

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. La misère du monde. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.Google Scholar

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994. Raisons practiques: Sur la théorie de l’action. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.Google Scholar

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Les structures sociales de l’économie. Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar

  • Brands, Martien, Dorothea Franck & Van Leeuwen. Evert 2000. Epistemology and semiotics of medical systems: A comparative analysis. Semiotica 132(1–2). 1–24.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Cancer Research UK. 2014. Stand up to cancer. Cancer Research UK. http://www.standuptocancer.org.uk/ (accessed 23 December 2014).

  • Cavalli, Nicola. 2007. The symbolic dimension of innovation processes. American Behavioral Scientist 50(7). 958–969.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Charon, Rita. 2008. Narrative medicine: Honoring the stories of illness, 1st edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Cobb, Shelley & Susan Starr. 2012. Breast cancer, breast surgery, and the makeover metaphor. Social Semiotics 22(1). 83–101.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Craig, Tom. 1997. Liminal bodies, medical codes. In C. W. Spinks & John Deely (eds.), Semiotics 1997, 223–234. Bern: Peter Lang Publishing. doi: .CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Crompvoets, Samantha. 2012. Prosthetic fantasies: Loss, recovery, and the marketing of wholeness after breast cancer. Social Semiotics 22(1). 107–120.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Crookshank, F. Graham. 1923. The importance of a theory of signs and a critique of language in the study of medicine. In C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards (eds.), The meaning of meaning: Study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism, 337–355. New York: Harcourt, Brace.Google Scholar

  • Davtian, Stepan & Tatyana Chernigovskaya. 2003. Psychiatry in free fall In pursuit of a semiotic foothold. Sign Systems Studies 31(2). 533–544.Google Scholar

  • De Moulin, Daniel. 1989. A short history of breast cancer. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar

  • De Vault, Marjorie. L. 1990. Talking and listening from women’s standpoint: Feminist strategies for interviewing and analysis. Social Problems 37(1). 96–116.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Deely, John. 2003. The semiotic animal: A postmodern definition of human being superseding the modern definition “res cogitans.” In Congresso Tomista Internazionale L’umanesimo Cristiano Nel Iii Millenio: Prospettiva Di Tommaso D’aquino, 230–274. Rome: Pontificia Accademia di San Tommaso – Società Internazionale Tommaso d’Aquino.Google Scholar

  • Deely, John, Susan Petrilli & Augusto Ponzio. 2005. The semiotic animal. Ottawa: Legas.Google Scholar

  • Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit.Google Scholar

  • Derrida, Jacques & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1998. Of grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar

  • DeShazer, Mary K. 2012. Postmillennial breast cancer photo-narratives: Technologized terrain. Social Semiotics 22(1). 13–30.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Donnelly, Eleanor. 1984. Signs of a problematic person. In John Deely (ed.), Semiotics 1984, 435–450. Bern: Peter Lang Publishing. DOI:.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Donnelly, Eleanor & Eileen Klonowski. 1994. Modeling breast cancer illness experience. In C.W. Spinks and John Deely (eds.), Semiotics 1994, 151–161. Bern: Peter Lang Publishing.Google Scholar

  • Du Plessis, Rory. 2012. Constructing patient-psychiatrist relations in psychiatric hospitals: The role of space and personal action. Social Semiotics 23(3). 424–443.Google Scholar

  • Ehlers, Nadine. 2012. Tekhnē of reconstruction: Breast cancer, norms, and fleshy rearrangements. Social Semiotics 22(1). 121–141.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Ehlers, Nadine & Shiloh Krupar. 2012. The body in breast cancer. Social Semiotics 22(1). 1–11.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Eisner, Elliot W. & Alan Peshkin. 1990. Qualitative inquiry in education: The continuing debate. New York: Teachers’ College Press.Google Scholar

  • Favareau, Donald. 2009. Information and semiosis in living systems: A semiotic approach. In Donald Favareau (eds.), Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary, 629–656. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar

  • Fentiman, Ian S., Alain Fourquet & Gabriel N. Hortobagyi. 2006. Male breast cancer. The Lancet 367(9510). 595–604.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Frank, J. D. 1975. The faith that heals. Johns Hopkins Medical Journal 137(3). 127–131.Google Scholar

  • Gouldner, Alvin W. 1971. Coming crisis of Western sociology. Portsmouth: NH Heinemann.Google Scholar

  • Gryder, Berkley, Chase Nelson & Samuel Shepard. 2013. Biosemiotic entropy of the genome: Mutations and epigenetic imbalances resulting in cancer. Entropy 15(1). 234–261.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Hackbarth, Mark, Norbert Haas, Christina Fotopoulou, Werner Lichtenegger & Jalid Sehouli. 2008. Chemotherapy-induced dermatological toxicity: Frequencies and impact on quality of life in women’s cancers. Results of a prospective study. Supportive Care in Cancer 16(3). 267–273.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Heidegger, Martin. 1953. Zeit und sein. Tübingen: Max Neimeyer Verlag.Google Scholar

  • Heidegger, Martin. 1954. Die Frage nach der Technik. In Clemens Graf Podewils (ed.), Vorträge und Aufsätze, 13–44. Pfullingen: der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste.Google Scholar

  • Heidegger, Martin 1956. Zur seinsfrage. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.Google Scholar

  • Heidel, William Arthur. 1941. Hippocratic medicine: Its spirit and method. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar

  • Henriksen, Nina & Helle Ploug Hansen. 2009. Marked bodies and selves: A literary-semiotic perspective on breast cancer and identity. Communication & Medicine 6(2). 143–152.Google Scholar

  • Hess, Volker. 1998. Medical semiotics in the eighteenth century: A theory of practice? Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 19(3). 203–213.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Heyl, S. Barbara. 2001. Ethnographic interviewing. In Paul Atkinson, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland & Lyn Lofland (eds.), Handbook of ethnography, 369–383. London: Sage.Google Scholar

  • Hippocrates (i. 460–c. 370 bc). 1846. Cinquième Tome de Livre, 101. In J. B. Baillière (ed.), Œuvres complètes d’Hippocrate, traduction nouvelle 1846, 258–259. Paris: L’institut Hippocrates.Google Scholar

  • Hippocrates (i. 460–c. 370 bc). 1983. Airs, waters, places. In J. Chadwick, W. N. Mann, I. M. Lonie & E. T. Withington (eds.), Hippocratic writings, 148–169. London: Penguin Classics.Google Scholar

  • Holstein, James & Jaber F. Gubrium. 1995. The active interview. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar

  • Jay, David. 2012. The SCAR Project. Social Semiotics 22(1). 39–46.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Kahn, Joan Y. 1981. The semiotic crisis in contemporary hospitals. In John Deely and Margot Lenhart (eds.), Semiotics 1981, 337– 343. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar

  • Kawade, Yoshimi. 1996. Molecular biosemiotics: Molecules carry out semiosis in living systems. Semiotica 111(3–4). 195–216.Google Scholar

  • Keinänen, Matti. 2003. Charles Peirce’s sign terminology, psychosemiosis, and psychotherapy: A clinical approach. Semiotica 146(1/4). 213–236.Google Scholar

  • Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., Lynanne McGuire, Theodore F. Robles & Ronald Glaser. 2002. Psychoneuroimmunology and psychosomatic medicine: Back to the future. Psychosomatic Medicine 64(1). 15–28.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Kleinpaul, Rudolf (ed.). 1893. Sprache ohne Worte. Idee einer allgemeinen Wissenschaft der Sprache.In Das Leben der Sprache und ihre Weltstellung, iii–vi. Leipzig: Wilhelm, Friedrich.Google Scholar

  • Krupar, Shiloh R. 2012. The biopsic adventures of mammary glam: Breast cancer detection and the practice of cancer glamor. Social Semiotics 22(1). 47–82.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Kull, Kalevi. 1998. Semiotic ecology: Different natures in the semiosphere. Sign Systems Studies 26. 344–371.Google Scholar

  • Kuperman, Victor & Joseph Zislin. 2005. Semiotic perspective of psychiatric diagnosis. Semiotica 155(1/4). 1–13.Google Scholar

  • Kvale, Steinar & Svend Brinkman. 2009. Interviews learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Google Scholar

  • Lee, Victoria & Geoffrey Beattie. 2000. Why talking about negative emotional experiences is good for your health: A microanalytic perspective. Semiotica 130(1–2). 1–81.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Li, C. I., D. J. Uribe & J. R. Daling. 2005. Clinical characteristics of different histologic types of breast cancer. British Journal of Cancer 93(9). 1046–1052.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Lindeboom, G. A. 1978. Descartes and medicine, Nieuwe Nederlandse bijdragen tot de geschiedenis der geneeskunde. Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar

  • Maguire, G. P., E. G. Lee, D. J. Bevington, C. S. Küchemann, R. J. Crabtree & C. E. Cornell. 1978. Psychiatric problems in the first year after mastectomy. British Medical Journal 1(6118). 963–965.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • McPherson, K., C. M. Steel & J. M. Dixon. 2000. Breast cancer: Epidemiology, risk factors, and genetics. British Medical Journal 321(7261). 624–628.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Mildenberger, Florian. 2004. Race and breathing therapy: The career of Lothar Gottlieb Tirala (1886–1974). Sign Systems Studies 32(1/2). 253–274.Google Scholar

  • Mounin, Georges. 1981. Sémiologie médicale et sémiologie linguistique. Confrontations psychiatriques 19. 43–58.Google Scholar

  • Nessa, John. 1996. About signs and symptoms: Can semiotics expand the view of clinical medicine? Theoretical Medicine 17(4). 363–377.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Opie, Anne. 1992. Qualitative research, appropriation of the “other,” and empowerment. Feminist Review 40. 52–69.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1998. Essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings, vol. 2 (1893–1913), Peirce Edition Project (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [Reference to vol. 2 of Essential Peirce will be designated EP 2.]Google Scholar

  • Peto, Richard, Jillian Boreham, Mike Clarke, Christina Davies & Valerie Beral. 2000. UK and USA breast cancer deaths down 25 % in year 2000 at ages 20–69 years. The Lancet 355(9217). 1822.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Peyrot, Mark. 1987. Circumspection in psychotherapy: Structures and strategies of counselor-client interaction. Semiotica 65(3–4). 249–268.Google Scholar

  • Phillips, Eustace Dockray. 1973. Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (Greek medicine 1), Howard Hayes Scullard (ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar

  • Plato (428–347 B.C.). 1992. Laches and Charmides, Rosamond Kent Sprague (ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.Google Scholar

  • Rausch, John L. 1995. Constructing lives: Emotionally disturbed children’s longing for normality, In C. W. Spinks and John Deely (eds.), Semiotics 1995, 291–302. Bern: Peter Lang Publishing.Google Scholar

  • Rockson, Stanley G. 2001. Lymphedema. American Journal of Medicine 110(4). 288–295.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Rogers, Linda J. & Beth Blue Swadener. 2001. Semiotics and dis/ability: Interrogating categories of difference. New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar

  • Roskelly, Hephzibah. 2012. I meditate on Descartes. Social Semiotics 22(1). 31–37.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Rothman, Barbara Katz. 1986. Reflections: On hard work. Qualitative Sociology 9(1). 48–53.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Rowley, Jennifer & Marco Spiezia. 2006. Spiezia organics: An SME marketing case study. Marketing Review 6(3). 253–263.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Schwartz, Michael & Osborne Wiggins. 2010. Psychosomatic medicine and the philosophy of life. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 5(1). 2.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas. 1978. The sign and its master. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas. 1981. The play of musement (Advances in Semiotics 1). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas. 1985. Vital signs. American Journal of Semiotics 3(3). 1–27.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas (ed.). 1986. Symptom. In I think i am a verb: More contributions to the doctrine of signs, 45–58. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas. 1991. Semiotics in the United States. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas (ed.). 2001a. Galen in medical semiotics. In Global semiotics, 44–58. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, Thomas. 2001b. Global semiotics. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

  • Shands, Harley Cecil. 1970a. Momentary deity and personal myth: A semiotic inquiry using recorded psychotherapeutic material. Semiotica 2(1). 11–27.Google Scholar

  • Shands, Harley Cecil. 1970b. Semiotic approaches to psychiatry. The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar

  • Skopek, Lucienne. 1979. Doctor-patient conversation: A way of analyzing its linguistic problems. Semiotica 28(3–4). 301–311.Google Scholar

  • Sontag, Susan. 1977. Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors. London: Penguin.Google Scholar

  • Staiano, Kathryn Vance. 1979. A semiotic definition of illness. Semiotica 28(1–2). 107–126.Google Scholar

  • Staiano, Kathryn Vance. 1982. Medical semiotics: Redefining an ancient craft. Semiotica 38(3–4). 319–346.Google Scholar

  • Staiano-Ross, Kathryn. 2011. Quarantine. Semiotica 187(1/4). 83–104.Google Scholar

  • Staiano-Ross, Kathryn. 2012. The symptom. Biosemiotics 5(1). 33–45.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Stampfl, Barry. 2013. “Exposaphobia” in the treatment of anxiety disorders: A semiotic reflection. In Jamin Pelkey (ed.), Semiotics 2013, 15–25. Ottawa: Legas Publishing.Google Scholar

  • Stern, Robert S. 2006. Topical calcineurin inhibitors labeling: Putting the “box” in perspective. Dermatology 142(9). 1231–1244.Google Scholar

  • Tredinnick-Rowe, John. 2016. ¿Qué es la Semiótica Médica? Revista Catedra Villarreal 4(2). 135–147.Google Scholar

  • Tuffs, Annette. 2004. Thure von Uexküll. British Medical Journal 329(7473). 1047.Google Scholar

  • Van Den Broek, Gerard J. 1987. Signs and signatures: Reading God’s herbal. Semiotica 63(1/2). 109–128.Google Scholar

  • Van’t Veer, Laura J., Hongyue Dai, Marc J. Van De Vijver, Yudong D. He, Augustinus A. M. Hart, Mao Mao, Hans L. Peterse, et al. 2002. Gene expression profiling predicts clinical outcome of breast cancer. Nature 415(6871). 530–536.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Von Uexküll, Jakob. 1909. Umwelt und innenwelt der tiere. Berlin: Julius Springer.Google Scholar

  • Von Uexküll, Thure. 1982. Semiotics and medicine. Semiotica 38(3–4). 205–216.Google Scholar

  • Von Uexküll, Thure. 1986. Medicine and semiotics. Semiotica 61(3/4). 201–217.Google Scholar

  • Wagner, Lisa C. 2005. “It’s for a good cause”: The semiotics of the pink ribbon for breast cancer in print advertisements. Intercultural Communication Studies 14(3). 209–216.Google Scholar

  • WHO. 2012. GLOBOCAN 2012: Estimated cancer incidence, mortality and prevalence worldwide in 2012. In Lyon, France: International Agency for research on Cancer. http://globocan.iarc.fr/Pages/fact_sheets_population.aspx (accessed 8 September 2015).

  • Williams, Hywel, Colin Robertson, Alistair Stewart, Nadia Aït-Khaled, Gabriel Anabwani, Ross Anderson, Innes Asher, et al. 1999. Worldwide variations in the prevalence of symptoms of atopic eczema in the international study of asthma and allergies in childhood. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 103(1). 125–138.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1921. Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Russell C. K. Ogden (trans.). New York: Cosimo.Google Scholar

  • Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Throwing like a girl and other essays in feminist philosophy and social theory. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2019-02-13

Published in Print: 2019-03-05

European Social Fund, (Grant/Award Number: ‘Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles o’).

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2019, Issue 227, Pages 187–210, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2016-0107.

Export Citation

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in