The History of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Controversy. Conflict. Words that I have heard over and over again. I have heard that women avoid confrontation and conflict. That they historically have been quiet, conforming, polite. That certainly has not been my experience with the National Breast Cancer Coalition and its network of activists across the country. These women embrace controversy and conflict, recognizing that going along with the way things are will not change the statistics about breast cancer.
Breast cancer used to be something women rarely discussed. In 1974, First Lady Betty Ford began to remove that barrier, doing something revolutionary: sharing her breast cancer diagnosis with the world. Suddenly women began to discuss the issue. There was a huge increase in the number of women getting mammograms. Slowly, breast cancer was becoming part of a women's health agenda.
Support groups began to form among women diagnosed with the disease. Organizations began to develop informational materials for the public. The idea of public support for research launched other groups and organizations. And many groups started raising money for free mammograms for uninsured and underserved women.
In 1991, many of these groups decided to band together and launch a political movement - the National Breast Cancer Coalition - to make breast cancer a national priority and to make certain the right policies were in place to address the important issues surrounding this disease.
And, while it was controversial, it was the right thing to do. In fact, one of our first campaigns was Do the Write Thing - delivering more than 600,000 letters to the President and Congress, calling for significantly increased federal funding for breast cancer research. In response, funding went up by $50 million. The following year, NBCC launched its $300 Million More! Campaign and was invited by a Senate Committee to testify on the issue. That was the first time I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate. I told them, "You have found billions of dollars to bail out the savings and loans. You can find $300 million to save women's lives." It was controversial, both the campaign and the testimony. And it was 1992, the vaunted "Year of the Woman" (as though we only got one year!) But we were making more and more progress, bringing together more and more voices across the country, some lawmakers were now beginning to understand the depth of the problem, and that year, thanks to our efforts, they funded the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Peer Reviewed Research Program. Federal funding immediately increased from $90 million to more than $400 million.
Fifteen years later, with annual lobbying on our part to make it happen, this unique program has brought two billion dollars in federal funding and attracted more than 26,500 research proposals. The result: some of the most important breakthroughs in breast cancer research. And, breast cancer consumer activists -- women and men who are living with breast cancer and can speak from first-hand experience - play an equal role with scientists on the panels deciding which grants to fund. Over the past fifteen years there were many conflicts we had to engage in to continue this program. Opposition from many in Congress, from other groups, from scientists who didn't believe advocates should be involved in making decisions. But we made our case, we persevered and we were successful.
Did we make our case quietly? No. When 40,000 women are dying each year of a disease, the time is long gone for quiet. In the mid-1970's, when Betty Ford's breast cancer diagnosis caused such a social earthquake, a woman had a one in eleven chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Today, that number has increased to one in eight. There is no time to waste, and we cannot be quiet, when your life, or the life of someone you care about, may be at risk.
As everyone knows, October has been Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Many choose to mark the occasion by pinning on pink ribbons and thinking how much progress has been made. The National Breast Cancer Coalition asks you to think otherwise -- and to join with us, an organization that has brought major, not incremental, changes to the world of breast cancer. Think about the 250,000 plus women who will be diagnosed this year. The almost 40,000 women who will die of breast cancer. Think of future generations. We need you to help us keep the pressure on Congress, on the presidential candidates, and on the scientific community -- to bring an end to breast cancer.
Take the National Breast Cancer Coalition's awareness quiz: