By Laurel Busch
It’s a delicate thing. It involves a private body part often seen as a sex object, a potentially deadly disease treated in gruesome ways–and the best of intentions. Yes, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a delicate thing. Who would offend a woman, especially a woman with breast cancer, by complaining about it?
I will. I will, and I can because I’ve had breast cancer twice. I’ve had lumpectomies, chemotherapy and radiation. Now I take an obnoxious drug called anastrozole, which might prevent a recurrence or another new case. Other than that, I’m fine now, thank you very much.
I’ve always hated Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Before my first diagnosis, the campaign scared me. Afterward, I didn’t like being reminded of my own experiences because I’ve chosen not to make breast cancer part of my identity or my life.
More recently, I’ve realized all the attention isn’t really accomplishing much. The onslaught of pink that intensifies every October as well as improved technology have resulted in more women being diagnosed with breast cancer and being diagnosed earlier. But now what? Even with earlier and earlier detection, we are not reducing the number of deaths from the disease. Furthermore, have we reached the point where we’re overdiagnosing and overtreating it?
When do we move the focus from awareness to preventing breast cancer, learning which cancers will be aggressive and which could be watched without treatment, and finding less harmful ways of treating it? And after making sure women get mammograms, how about helping more of them with the costs of treating the breast cancer that is found in them?
In the early days of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the famous pink ribbons, corporations adopted the cause as a marketing opportunity. Now we’re showered with pink products and given practically no information on how the money from them will be used. Often there is not even a pretense of actually doing anything about breast cancer; the pink products’ only purpose is to “raise awareness”—of breast cancer and, of course, a company, product or organization.
That’s why I was delighted to find another breast cancer campaign, one that makes much more sense to me: Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink. BCA questions how the money raised in breast cancer awareness campaigns is spent and points out the hypocrisy of corporations that simultaneously support breast cancer awareness while selling products that are known to or possibly do cause cancer.
I was surprised to learn that that one of the founders of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was AstaZeneca, maker of the breast cancer drugs Nolvadex (tamoxifen) and Arimidex (anastrozole). If you scroll to the bottom of the NBCAM Web page, you’ll see the site belongs to the AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation.
Now, isn’t that nice of them? It shows they’re on the side of women who use their products. But wait a minute. Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer take tamoxifen and anastrozole for years after their other treatment ends; in other words, the more women screened, the more customers. And the women who don’t have breast cancer? The awareness campaign makes them fear getting it so much they are willing to buy AstraZeneca’s drugs in hopes of preventing it. My cynical side tells me the company has no incentive to direct funding to research into other ways of preventing or treating the disease.
But my niece thinks she’s supporting me by participating in the Race for the Cure. Rodeo cowboys think they’re somehow helping women by wearing pink shirts. Shoppers buy pink kitchen appliances because “it’s for a good cause.” I could go on and on.
I do appreciate the concern, and I’m as reluctant to offend all those good-hearted people as they are eager to support me. It’s a delicate thing, but I want them to know I won’t be offended if they don’t wear pink ribbons this month. I won’t be doing it.