Breast Cancer Awareness: Educate, Help, Cure

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • Tomorrow Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins.  Every October, stores are packed with "pink" products promising donations to breast cancer charities if you buy their products.  I've become rather cynical about these promotions.  Often when you read the fine print, you realize that very little is actually going to fight breast cancer.


    It's never been clear to me how a pink ribbon will teach someone about breast cancer symptoms.  It's never been clear to me why breast cancer deserves so much attention.  According to the American Cancer Society, about 52% of new cancer diagnoses for women will be lung, breast and colorectal cancers with lung cancer killing more women than breast cancer.  Then there are all the other forms of cancer that 48% of women will get that don't get a month or even a day. 

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    Right now I have two friends fighting for their lives.  One is in the early stages of treatment for thyroid cancer; the other recently got good news that the chordoma cancer that had metastasized from her knee to her lungs is shrinking.  Their stories are just as important as my breast cancer story.


    Unfortunately, there are enough breast cancer patients that we have been able, by sheer numbers, to make ourselves heard.  Fortunately, enough of us have been surviving so that we can organize.  Now, the breast cancer cause is so prominent that some people have taken to calling October, Pink-tober.


    Pink-tober is useless unless it does three things:  educate women about breast cancer symptoms, help current patients and survivors, and fund research into prevention and cure.


    The education piece is partially there.  Many of the products sold with pink ribbons in October will have a brief list of breast cancer symptoms.  As an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor, I am always distressed to see how much of that information emphasizes finding a lump.  It is important that women know to see their doctor for any breast change that lasts longer than a menstrual cycle, and to run, not walk, to their doctors for swelling, redness, and skin dimpling even if they don't feel a lump.


    Some of the breast cancer charities spend their money helping current patients.  My lymphedema clinic has a grant from our Komen affiliate to fund compression sleeves for any part of the expense not covered by insurance.  Other charities help with copays and other expenses.


    The prevention and cure part needs more attention.  Early detection may save lives, but it is not a cure.  Until scientists can find a way to prevent women from getting breast cancer and/or completely cure someone who does get it, there is still work to be done.  Many of the glowing statistics we see about breast cancer are based on five-year survival rates.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people recurring at six years or sixteen.  Once a person gets breast cancer, fear lurks that it might come back.


    If you decide to buy pink this October, read the label.  How much of your money is actually going to a reputable cancer organization?  Where does that charity put its money?  Education?  Aid to patients?  Research?  In most cases, you are better off writing a check to the charity that works in the breast cancer arena that touches your heart rather than buying pink.


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    One of the biggest players in the buy pink game is Komen for the Cure.  In my city the Komen race is the first Saturday in October.  I've participated in it twice before:  once walking with my husband, and once as a volunteer at the survivor booth.  This year a group of work friends recruited me to walk with them.


    When I walk tomorrow, I will be walking in memory of all my IBC friends.  I still write at least two or three condolence notes a month to the families of my IBC contacts through the website.  Some of their names will be on my back as I walk.


    I will also be there walking because I know my presence will encourage newly diagnosed women just as I was helped by long-term IBC survivors after my diagnosis.  


    I like having my picture taken with hundreds of survivors and celebrating the sisterhood of survivors-even those whose survival is still measured in days after diagnosis, not years. 


    I love getting little pink ribbon stickers to put on my hat--thirteen this year.  I will wear the hat that a member of my home church wore when I was in treatment.  I was the name on her back that year, and she gave the hat to me.  


    I will rejoice when I release 13 balloons to celebrate my 13 years of survival.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with other survivors, we will watch our balloons sail into the sky, and we will shout with the joy of survival.


    Yet I know this event will make me sad.   Breast cancer is sad.  No amount of pink can pretty it up.



Published On: September 30, 2011