It’s hard today to remember how recently cancer was a silent killer, a dreaded disease about which people rarely spoke in public. In hospitals and doctors’ offices, conversations about malignancy were hushed and hope was limited. In this deeply researched book, Elaine Schattner reveals a sea change—from before 1900 to the present day—in how ordinary people talk about cancer.

From Whispers to Shouts examines public perception of cancer through stories in newspapers and magazines, social media, and popular culture. It probes the evolving relationship between journalists and medical specialists and illuminates the role of women and charities that distributed medical information. Schattner traces the origins of patient advocacy and activism from the 1920s onward, highlighting how, while doctors have lost control of messages about cancer, survivors have gained visibility and voice.

The book’s final section lays out provocative questions facing the cancer community today—including distrust of oncologists, concerns over financial burdens, and disparities in cancer treatments and care. Schattner considers how patients and their loved ones struggle to make decisions amid conflicting information and opinions. She explores the ramifications of so much openness, good and bad, and asks: Has awareness backfired? Instead, Schattner contends, we need greater understanding of cancer’s treatability.


suggested discussion questions for book groups

corrections to the first edition


Audiobook narrated by Jenn Lee and produced by Dreamscape Media

“a fascinating book” with myriad and “surprising insights from our long and tortuous relationship with cancer” 

Ron Winslow, New Books Network

“a cri de coeur for a more upbeat assessment of past and future efforts to control the disease” 

Barron Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth Century America

“fascinating, enlightening, and, despite its difficult topic, even inspiring.”

Deborah Blum – Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and director of the Knight Science Journalism program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“a comprehensive and enlightening cultural and political history of cancer care in America”

Sandeep Jauhar, New York Times best-selling author of My Father’s Brain and Heart: A History

“a cultural history that considers evolving societal views about cancer—including fear and silence—and their impacts on patient”

Martha Anne Toll, Lilith Magazine

“a powerfully illuminating narrative of how things changed over the last century or so, both thorough and compelling.”

The Baffler