Unless you live under a rock, you know that October is breast cancer awareness month. Even if you did not know it, you will not be able to turn on the television, surf the internet, go to an NFL football game, or even shop at a store during the month of October without hearing about breast cancer, seeing pink ribbons or products that promise to contribute a portion of the purchase price to breast cancer research or programming. Although all cancer survivors support research and programming for breast cancer, many patients and advocates committed to curing other forms of cancer turn pink with envy during October.
After all, September is the month dedicated to promoting both blood cancer awareness (lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma) and childhood cancer awareness. Blood cancer and childhood cancer awareness advocates work hard and have made strides, still the awareness activities for other cancers simply do not measure up to those of breast cancer.
Kudos to those responsible for the tremendous awareness associated with breast cancer! Your Cancer Examiner – like nearly everyone else – has friends and family members impacted by breast cancer. We would not deny breast cancer a single public service announcement or a single penny for research.
Indeed, those of us impacted by blood cancers and other cancers can learn a lot about the steps that we need to take to ensure that other forms of cancer receive more publicity, awareness, and research funding. October serves a stark reminder that we need to do so much more for the forms of cancer recognized in September and other months of the year. We can learn from the efforts of the breast cancer community, but these efforts are not likely to be replicated anytime soon.
The reality is that breast cancer awareness has a competitive advantage. In an ideal world, contributions of money and awareness to one good cause would not diminish publicity or awareness going to another worthwhile cause. Certainly there is room to grow overall contributions to cancer research, educational programming, and public awareness and that is something that cancer survivors and advocates must seek to achieve.
But in this world riddled with economic struggles, unprecedented government deficits and debt, and limited free public service announcement time on major media outlets (many of which are losing ratings and dollars due to competition from satellite radio, cable television, the internet, and social media), cancers are competing for limited charitable contributions, government research grants, and media attention. Charities with existing relationships are more likely to retain air time than new ones are to obtain air time. Programs currently funded by the government are more likely to maintain funding than new ones are to gain funding. Private donors – individuals and companies – are struggling to honor existing charitable commitments. For all of these reasons, it will be difficult for other cancers to catch-up, but this is not a competition. The real goal is to increase awareness, education, and funding for all cancer research in absolute terms.
Some of the other cancers have a less tangible cause to market. In seeking to understand the enormity of the breast cancer awareness advantage, one must consider that breast cancer has some tangible advantages. Breast cancer is easy to spell, is easy to pronounce, and has a name tying it to a specific, readily understood and admired body part. Lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma – in contrast – are more difficult to spell, harder to say, are less easily understand, and are more difficult to relate to a specific body part. Lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma (which are more commonly used terms than blood cancer) do not have the word cancer in them. In fact, after more than fifteen years of advocacy, it still astounds me that so many people know someone with these diseases and yet so few know what lymphoma, leukemia, or myeloma are or even that they are cancers. But the awareness disparity between breast cancer and blood cancers, of course, does not lie in these differences. Nor does it lie in picking the right color for ribbons.
The awareness efforts certainly have had an enormous impact in terms of publicity and fundraising. It is less clear as to whether enough of the funds have gone into research and education and whether the impact in terms of medical advancement has been commensurate with the dollars generated.
Last year, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month we focused on young women with breast cancer and raised the issue of whether women under 40 were disserved by the screening guidelines that recommended that women receive their first mammogram at age 40. http://www.examiner.com/article/breast-cancer-awareness-month-ends-by-focusing-on-young-women-and-men. One study concluded that 29% of invasive breast cancer deaths were in women who were screened, while 71% were in unscreened women. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.28199/abstract.
We cannot allow Breast Cancer Awareness Month to pass without providing important information to our readers about the disease. In the accompanying video, Dr. Swati Kulkarni – a surgeon and expert in management and treatment of breast cancer and benign breast disease at the University of Chicago – discusses the basics about breast cancer, the different types of breast cancer, early detection, treatment options, prevention, progress, and other important issues.