Thinking beyond the pink on breast cancer
It’s that time of the year again when supermarket shelves are pinkwashed. A flush spreads across water bottles and tissue boxes, and ruddy ribbons are everywhere.
It’s fair to say that we are more aware of breast cancer than any other cancer.
So how is it possible that the entire world can be swathed in pink yet women still have such a fundamental misunderstanding of this disease?
Most women with breast cancer think stress caused it.
There’s no doubt stress can make you sick. It lowers your immunity. Stress is bad. But it’s not clear what role – if any – it plays in breast cancer. The Sunday Mail reports that survivors and healthcare professionals will discuss breast cancer risk factors at the Breast Cancer Network Australia national conference this week.
Let’s hope they discuss the importance of moving beyond the promotion of pink merchandise and look at making sure women – and men – are properly informed about the risks.
A study published last year found just 2 per cent of survivors thought lifestyle factors such as obesity and alcohol consumption were to blame. And 58.1 per cent thought stress was the culprit.
It’s not. Age and gender are the biggest risk factors for breast cancer, and there’s not a lot you can do about them.
But there are a few things you can do to reduce your chances. Booze is a carcinogen, and contributes to up to 20 per cent of breast cancer cases. Obesity is also a risk factor.
Maybe little warnings should go on the bottles of bubbly and the towering stacks of pink cupcakes that will be consumed at breast cancer events throughout October.
There are various things like hormone replacement therapy, contraception and not having children – or having them late – than can contribute. And all women should be aware of their family history.
But stress? There’s not much evidence that it plays a role – although it could lead to overeating and binge drinking, which brings us back to booze and obesity. Experts estimate lifestyle changes could reduce the incidence of breast cancer by a quarter.
There’s no way to predict whether you’ll get breast cancer, or any cancer, but wrapping your head around the risks is really important - as is remembering that prostate and bowel cancer are more common, and lung cancer more deadly. A Cancer Australia analysis found lung cancer – which is responsible for one in five cancer deaths – gets only 1 per cent of research funding.
And yet if you go to the Cancer Australia website, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s one of the multitude of breast cancer organisations.
There’s an interesting dynamic here of PR, spin, and stigma.
An ad on television about lung cancer is grim, tragic, and hopefully effective. A woman is told she has lung cancer, and has to tell her children. You can sense her shame. Contrast this to the upbeat, bright ads about breast cancer awareness.
We are perfectly happy to blame lung cancer sufferers for their disease – which admittedly is more likely to be a direct result of lifestyle – but we would never dream of making a breast cancer sufferer feel guilty about being overweight, or not exercising enough, or drinking too much. It’s a double standard.
Breast cancer lobby groups have done an amazing job – it’s almost been too successful. Too much cupcake, not enough perspective.
It’s time to ask - is all this hyperawareness effective if women still don’t understand what causes breast cancer? If they are still confused about whether they are, themselves, at risk? And at what cost to other cancers that can’t compete with this public relations phenomenon?
I’m not saying steer clear of the pink products (although it pays to check how much actually goes to charity and whether you’d be better off donating directly).
I’m just saying we need to take off the rose-tinted glasses.
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