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Breast Cancer Awareness—For the Good of the Many


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 29, 2012.

I was asked recently why we still have breast cancer awareness campaigns—after all, isn’t everyone already aware of breast cancer’s existence? While, yes, it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t know about breast cancer, that’s not what these campaigns are about. Rather than just letting people know that breast cancer is an issue, those pink ribbons and PSAs are meant to keep the issue of breast cancer in the public conscience. In a society with the attention span of a goldfish, it is imperative for any cause to stay on people’s minds if it wishes to gain any traction.

That being said, it seems there is beginning to be some backlash against the media onslaught that breast cancer charities have used. In this CNN article, Ann Silberman—a current cancer patient—talks about the need to focus on cures instead of awareness. She worries that too much is being spent on advertising while the efforts to actually cure the disease remain underfunded.

Now I’m a numbers kinda guy, so let’s look at some data from the American Cancer Society. In 1987, 18.6% of poor women between 40-49 years of age had received mammography screening. By 2010, that number had risen to 49.1%. For non-poor women age 65+ in 1987 the screening prevalence was 29.5%, rising to 71.6% by 2010. Other demographics have shown similar increases. While awareness may not be the most effective route to curing existing disease, it does seem to have a positive effect on helping women catch cancer early.

Now, you might not buy that awareness and screening has any real benefit to women. But even as cancer incidence has risen (which the ACS attributes to earlier identification of cancer), breast cancer mortality has dropped. While correlation may not imply causation, in the words of Randall Munroe, “it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” At the very least it seems fair to assume that advance screening has helped.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the largest breast cancer charity in the U.S. and also has advocacy and programs in over 50 countries. The pink ribbon has become synonymous with the foundation, and pink is everywhere in October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month), from shirts to bracelets to football players’ cleats. But to some women, not all the advertising is in good taste.

Tory Zellick (again from the CNN article) laments “the idea that a sophomore boy in high school with raging hormones would be wearing a wristband with a slogan such as ‘save the boobies.’” To me, such criticism misses the point. If a “save the tat-tas” shirt convinces a teenage boy to want to work towards curing breast cancer, that should be seen as a good thing. And if it doesn’t but at least gets him talking about breast cancer with his friends, that’s a good thing, too.  Just as they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity for business or celebrities, so too should be the case with cancer awareness.

And while this may sound like a crass thing to say, the issue is bigger than any one individual and the embarrassment he/she may feel about certain campaigns. There is no disrespect intended and none should be taken. The truth is that any dollar that gets put into breast cancer research today is unlikely to directly help someone who is receiving treatment now, but it does have the potential to be a game-changer for someone in the future. It is ultimately a meaningful impact in the future that all of these charities and organizations are working for, and for the sake of those men and women who may be diagnosed down the line, we should be supporting these efforts.

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