Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't Think Pink

October is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, though it might be more accurately termed "Breast Cancer Exploitation Month." Pink is everywhere: ribbons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, water bottles, bracelets, charms, key chains, even on the shoes and gloves of NFL players. The profusion and panoply of pink-tinged items cannot help but catch the eye and assault the senses. One wonders, though, if the energies put into organizing this explosion of pink paraphernalia are wasted in the cause of awareness, reducing breast cancer to a Disney-esque parade. For as surely as the avalanche began, it became an Internet meme, perverted into something which had less to do with awareness of breast cancer, and more to do with frat boy frolics.

If we are going to talk about awareness of the prevalence and dangers behind breast cancer, let's look at the statistics:

Courtesy of

  • About 1 in 8 women in the United States (between 12 and 13%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.
  • In 2010, an estimated 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 54,010 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.
  • About 39,840 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2010 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1991. These decreases are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness.
  • For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer.
  • Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among U.S. women. More than 1 in 4 cancers in women (about 28%) are breast cancer.
  • About 70-80% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. These occur due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general, rather than inherited mutations.
The statistics are sobering. They should cause any woman to take pause and consider the risk of pretending that they will not contract breast cancer. There is no guarantee -- even having no family history of it does not make you immune. Breast self-exams and mammograms are the keys to fighting the disease, by helping you to find it early enough to be treated before it becomes too invasive. Symptoms can be irregular, and it is best to consult with a trained physician if you experience discomfort in and around your breasts that persists, or you detect a lump through a self-exam.

This is the awareness that should be shouted from the rooftops, but is being overshadowed by the need to wrap the horror that is breast cancer up in pretty pink ribbons. One does not doubt the sincerity of those who are earnest in their efforts to spread the color pink everywhere, but it holds no magic power to impart the necessary information to those who need it most. If anything, like a car alarm, the constant blare of pinkishness makes it recede into the background and fade from consciousness. There really is too much of a good thing.

The money that is spent organizing events and producing products is money that is not going where it needs to: research. True, breast cancer research is better funded these days, but there is still too much work to do before it is beaten, as is true with every other type of cancer. The dollars spent advertising the problem are best put into programs to teach girls in high school about the scourge of breast cancer, to fund health clinics and their community outreach programs to get the message out, and to university and private research establishments to fund on-going research. In addition, scholarships and grants should be made to universities and colleges to encourage men and women to take up such research, because every extra mind or set of hands means more can be done.

It is not the glory of the Moon landings, nor the imperative of the Manhattan Project, but if we are to once more become a world leader, then this is our arena. Let us dedicate ourselves to ending breast cancer, and all cancers, in our lifetime. Let us make it our goal, before this decade is out, of finding the cause of and a cure for cancer. No single science project in this period will be more impressive to Mankind, or more important for the long-term health of humanity; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. But if we do this, if we wrestle cancer to the ground, then we will have done something admirable and meaningful, for the whole world to share, and that, of itself, makes it worth the cost.

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