This year, about a quarter of a million American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and about 40,000 will die of breast cancer. This year, just under 2 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer, and about 565,000 will die of cancer.
Despite those disheartening statistics, cancer isn’t the leading cause of death in the United States; heart disease is. So why is SO much publicity generated around breast cancer: its incidence, treatment and, especially, its funding? From Revlon to Avon, the Ford Motor Company to Susan G. Komen For the Cure (and its $1 billion raised over the past 25 years, with the pledge of $1 billion more in the next 10 years), it seems everyone’s jumped on the breast cancer bandwagon. Do you ever feel guilty about that?
I do. I mean, when’s the last time you heard about an entire month devoted to lung cancer? How about a walk to cure stomach cancer? Even prostate cancer, the male equivalent of breast cancer, gets nowhere near the media play that breast cancer does. One in eight women (13%) will get breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. One in six men (17%) will get prostate cancer. It’s a fact: prostate cancer is a bigger problem in American society than breast cancer.
But where’s the postage stamp for prostate cancer (or any other cancer, for that matter), like the lovely ones the USPS put out for breast cancer-which has raised nearly $16 million? If breast cancer is pink (and who doesn’t know that?), what color is colon cancer? Heck, even online the disparity is shocking: Google finds more results for "breast cancer" than it does for "lung cancer," despite the fact four times as many Americans will die of lung cancer this year as breast cancer.
Thus it’s always with a bit of emotional squirming that I read about yet another breast cancer fund-raiser: the Three Day, the Race for the Cure, the sale of pink KitchenAid mixers or Lilly Pulitzer scarves or all manner of pink-themed merchandise. OF COURSE I’m happy that breast cancer research is being funded to such a spectacular degree. None of us who’s going through it or been through it wants another woman to go down that harrowing path. We want an end to the whole damned breast cancer scene: the slicing off our breasts and poison and deadly radiation and bald heads and sorrow and death – most of all, death. But at the same time, we want an end to ALL of cancer, the whole thing, from oncology as a medical specialty to the multi-billion dollar cancer drug industry.
Does the attention paid to breast cancer take away from research and funding for other types of cancer? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it does. Research runs on money, and that’s a finite commodity. The more government funding devoted to breast cancer, the fewer grants given to lung cancer researchers. The more dollars donated by generous community members during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the less donated to any other worthy cause; because, let’s face it, the reality is we all live on a budget. When the well runs dry, that’s it.
In the end, I feel like the pretty girl in the class: the one who’s always in the spotlight, the one who gets picked to hand the bunch of flowers to the famous visitor just because she’s cute. In the meantime, lots of other girls, the ones who don’t stand out, are unfairly ignored. I realize that the day will probably never come when all kinds of cancer get the same PR (and rate of funding) as breast cancer. So I’ll always feel a bit uncomfortable, being a breast cancer survivor. Happy for myself and my breast cancer sisters; sad for (and guilty about) the rest of my cancer family.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.