Are all cancers equal?

// 6 April 2011

Tags: ,

Sunday was Mother’s Day. Finding a card meant the usual struggle through a sea of pink cards but I did manage to find something that suitably conveys how proud I am of her – and how lucky I feel to still have her.

Two years ago my mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, following a long battle with her GP to recognise her symptoms and refer her for further investigation. She’s still surviving but the cancer has now taken up root in her lungs and so the battle continues.

Lung cancer has a survival rate of only about 5% and kills more men and women each year than any other cancer. Of the other ‘big four’, colorectal cancer is third most commonly diagnosed, prostate cancer is a major cause of death in men and breast cancer completes the list, with around 45,000 women being diagnosed each year.

As a woman, I’m pleased that information and advice about breast cancer is all around us, in the news, in soaps, magazines and so on. October is breast cancer awareness month but all year round there are various charity events, fun runs, moonlight walks and the ubiquitous pink ribbon. This is undoubtedly a good thing – breast cancer kills around 12,000 women each year in this country so no one would question the need to raise awareness of the disease and fund research into a cure.

What I do question is whether this sometimes comes at the expense of other equally dangerous cancers (and indeed other illnesses). Whether research and media coverage has become hyperfocused on the cancer with the most marketability, the cancer that attacks that part of our bodies that the media attaches far more value to than our other body parts – while other cancers receive less funding and far less attention.

The fight to raise awareness of breast cancer was a feminist triumph. Women’s illnesses don’t always receive the attention and research funds that they should but now more research spending goes on breast cancer than any other cancers. This has contributed to the survival rate for breast cancer increasing over the last 40 years, with four out of every five women now surviving the disease.

But did we sell out somewhere along the line? To me it feels rather like breast cancer has become a brand, one that’s marketed in pink (much like Mother’s Day). Companies push their specially branded pink products at us and we buy them to show that we care for our sisters and mothers, without any real knowledge of where the profits go or whether they might actually be contributing to the disease in the first place (see The Problem with Pink). On Facebook we feel compelled to join in with various games like posting our bra colour or where we put our handbag, all under the guise of raising awareness (really? I agree with Lorrie Hearts’ take on this).

But given that lung cancer now kills nearly as many women as men, and more women than breast cancer, shouldn’t we be focusing a bit more on stopping girls from smoking? And shouldn’t we encourage women (and doctors) to be just as concerned about blood in our faeces as we are about lumps in our breasts?

Meanwhile, while others proudly display their pink ribbons around town, I don’t have the option to buy a brown ribbon to raise awareness of colorectal cancer and my mum feels like her cancer, and her fight, is just slightly in the shadow of others.

Comments From You

Jadea // Posted 7 April 2011 at 12:05 am

I have serious issues with ‘The Big Pink Monster’ and always have done, there are countless blog entries and web sites that discuss the mass of Breast Cancer merchandise that drives us crazy;

– Commercial toiletries turning pink when they themselves contain ingredients linked to cancer and companies who are making money out of this have time and time again shown total disregard to the environment, health and lives. Breast cancer victims and survivors are being surrounded by breast cancer products, like cancer isn’t on their mind enough.

I HATE fun-runs and the like – it’s not about awareness any more, sure money is being raised but many of the people taking part in such events and fund-raising are anything but aware of breast cancer. While raising money is good there is no prostate cancer awareness month, no lung cancer, heart disease…etc. etc. etc. – money too all seems to be going towards finding a cure or raising awareness, not nearly enough on actually PREVENTING cancers.

Clare Slater // Posted 7 April 2011 at 11:50 am

I have to say that in someways I agree. Breast cancer is terrible. I lost my grandma to it 20 years ago, and the advances in care since then have been verging on miraculous (having seen treatments first hand working as a nurse and also having several friends who’s Mums have had successful treatment).

However I do feel that other forms of cancer seem to be over looked. In the last 5 years My own mum has been treated for Ovarian cancer (successfully we hope) and my Dad prostate cancer and so I have developed an interest in both these illnesses.

Ovarian cancer currently has only a 50% 5 year survival rate (1). However simply diagnosing ovarian cancer earlier could raise this to 90% (2). 6800 women are diagnosed each year, and it is the 5th most common cancer in women. That said, very few women are even aware of the symptoms of the illness.

So by all means raise awareness of all cancers, their symptoms and money for their treatment. But maybe our awareness ribbons should be rainbow coloured to include not just pink, but turquoise, blue, yellow and other colours.

Refs (1)


MarinaS // Posted 7 April 2011 at 12:03 pm

It’s impossible to improve on Barbara Ehrenreich on the subject of Pink Ribbon tyranny; I can’t recommend her book Smile Or Die enough. Bringing breast cancer out of the shadow of shame and guilt it was under until the 80s has been a fantastic feminist victory, but the whole thing has morphed into a cover-up for the fact that we have no prevention strategies for cancer, only (expensive, profitable) treatments.

I didn’t get to watch the documentary made by and about Farrah Fawcett’s diagnosis, treatment and eventual sad death of anal cancer, but I did see a few clips online, and one that I found most poignant is when she talks about how she never thought she’s hear the words “malignant, tomour, anal”.

Too many breast cancer “awareness” texts concentrate on the sexual desirability of the diseased organ – losing the breasts, or “tatas” as one US based campaign put it, is the worst outcome; this doesn’t just silence and ignore people suffering from other types of cancer, but also men who get breast cancer and post-mastectomy women. I’d hoped that Farrah would be successful in her aim in making the movie – bringing less patriarchy-pleasing forms of cancer into the light- but it doesn’t looks like this is really happening.

Lynsey // Posted 7 April 2011 at 12:18 pm

I used to work for a cancer charity, and although breast cancer does seem to have an excessive amount of publicity, all the money (raised by my charity, at least) went towards fighting ALL cancers. So any publicity was good publicity. Obviously that is not the case for charities focusing solely on breast cancer.

Sheila // Posted 7 April 2011 at 12:22 pm

Dear Mel

I am so sorry to hear about your mother. My own mother died of a gender-neutral cancer which doesn’t get much press either but is always known to be terminal as soon as it’s diagnosed – so she got a death sentence as soon as she knew what was wrong with her. I agree with you that breast cancer does seem to attract some more interest because of the breast part of the illness rather than the cancer part. Many relatives feel when seeing their loved ones go through any illness is that many other illnesses get more time and medical attention as well as more press. I remember resenting mother-type women I knew who had more “glamourous” cancers than my mother’s. But then I’ve had friends with breast cancer too, and there is nothing at all pink or glamourous about the disease itself. It’s awful. If dressing up in pink saves one life, I’d wear pink every day. Some people might make a profit out of that but if there was cause and effect – i.e. if talking about breast cancer aids detection then I’d believe in talking about it. My local radio runs a health awareness advert every day several times about bowel cancer. I’ve never heard them do the same for any other cancer. I disagree with Jadea about fun runs. I’ve run the Race for Life a couple of time. Each runner has a blank sheet of paper to pin to their backs about for whom they are running this race. You see all these women with messages like “For Grandad”, “For Mum”, or for multiple names, all close relatives of friends with cancer. Some people pin photos to their backs of people they’ve lost. It is very moving. The Race for Life does include a lot of women dressed in pink, or in fancy dress, but that’s just a social thing because it’s women only. It is not purely about breast cancer and not purely about women sufferers either. And you are wrong about prostate cancer awareness month. It’s November, which is called Movember and men grow moustaches for charity in sponsored events.

Kate // Posted 7 April 2011 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for writing this post, Mel J. You bring up some really important points. As someone with chronic bowel disease, I entirely agree that we should be teaching everyone to be as concerned about blood in our faeces as lumps in our breasts. This should, of course, be extended to doctors too, who so easily dismiss what I now know to be very worrying symptoms. I am very sorry your mother had such a struggle with her GP and I’d like to express my support for both of you.

woodsiegirl // Posted 7 April 2011 at 1:26 pm

This really struck a chord with me. My mum was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer last year – the 9th most common cancer in the UK, but a disease that up until Mum’s diagnosis, none of my family knew anything about. One of the things that’s really irritated me ever since (and I know this is petty, but hey) is the number of people who, on hearing that my mum has cancer, immediately assume it’s breast cancer. E.g. Them: “Sorry to hear about your mum’s cancer. Is she going to have to have a mastectomy?” Me: “I bloody hope not – don’t think cutting her boobs off will have much effect on her oesophagus!” (Ok, I’ve actually never said that, but I’ve thought it enough times…)

Slightly less common, but still happens often enough to be noticeable, are the people who after I’d told them it was actually oesophageal cancer, said something along the lines of “oh, that’s not as bad then”. Not only is that a jaw-droppingly offensive thing to say (is there a good cancer to have??) it’s also untrue – survival rates for breast cancer are much, much higher than for oesophageal cancer.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 7 April 2011 at 3:00 pm

Thanks Mel for a great post!

It’s true that there are alot of publicity for different types of cancers. I’m also a bit skeptical of how the medical field treat cancer with women and with men. Rates of hysterectomies different to large scales in different countries, hospitals and regions. This could be because there are other factors than simply disease prevalence.

masculinist // Posted 7 April 2011 at 4:28 pm

this is quite interesting for me as I work in a cancer treatment hospital , not on the medical side of things though. I think women are way ahead of men when it comes to cancer awareness and cancer fund raising. The Race for Life is something that all women can join in and do something to help. Its also a UK wide event.

I wish there was something for men.

I have been on the Everyman website and yes, there is a men only 5k and 10k race , on June 5th June in London and Sheffield only …….nowhere else ….

June is also Everyman’s cancer awareness month ….and on June 19th its Turn Blue day ………

does anyone know about this ? its not advertised ….and if it is then nowhere near as well as Tickled Pink etc …..

a lot of things go pink …….cant think anything that goes blue ….

We did have Movember ….which is good and something and something men

can be a part of . I think events in june should move to coincide on November 19th , International Mens Day.

There are probably lots of reasons men are not willing or prepared to be cancer savy ….we should be . Its not just prostrate or testicular …skin cancer is rising among men , but do we cover up ?????? (some of us should do !! )

If I was a millionaire I would put money into getting a mens race for life, just like the womens , UK wide with all the advertising and campaining that goes with it , but I’m not .

Would it even get off the ground ?

But it would be nice for men to raise money as well as women , not in competition but to help everyone who is or has been affected by cancer. 1 in 3 of us might be.

Angi // Posted 7 April 2011 at 4:40 pm

I have mixed feelings on the subject of pink promotions. I share the obvious concerns about linking such a potentially devastating diagnosis as breast cancer to the sale of sexy and/or frilly mercandise, and like others would be interested to know how much of the revenue is ploughed into research & treatment. On the other hand, I do think breast cancer awareness month and similar initiatives give teachers and health care professionals an opportunity to get the message out to teenage girls.

As for Fun Runs etc I have never taken part, but my sister (who suffered from a particularly aggressive breast cancer, necessitating a double masectomy) found the experience of participating both liberating and empowering. And I’m not going to argue with her!

What I do find infuriating is the varying attitudes to different cancers. I know Mel’s wonderful Mum and am aware of the courage and fortitude she has brought to her battle with The Bummer. Like many others, she has had to fight the system on occasion. I’m not saying that those with breast cancer don’t also have to struggle with misinformation, laspes in quality care, insensitivity and all the rest. They do, of course they do. But until we can discuss the likes of cervical and colorectal cancers without embarassment, life-threatening delays in investigating symptoms and in diagnosis will remain. There is a huge gap in public awareness and professional support, and I for one would be proud to wear a brown ribbon if it would save a single life.

Anna // Posted 7 April 2011 at 4:42 pm

I have to say i agree with breast cancer being too much in the limelight but i disgaree with the notion (commented above) that fun runs, like the race for life, are more about the hype then knowing of the disease. As someone who works with the genetic diagnosis of diseases such as colerectal cancer, I find that completely wrong. Especially as many of those i know doing the race for life are from Cancer Research UK, other labs and also-most importantly- those who have survived and those (like my mother) running for friends who will not survive the summer. And the proceeds go towards CRUK which funds all cancers.

But i agree there is too much emphasis on breast cancer which not only overshadows survivors and victims of others but less promotion also means those cancers symptoms are less well known and that any person is more likely to ignore said symptoms, not having associated. Really, all cancers need more highlighting especially when it comes to running adverts regarding what symptoms to watch out for, and where to go for help, advice or just to donote.

I’ll be honest, i think breast cancer gets more hype because it’s more focussed on women, whereas the other cancers (as you’ve said) tend to focus on men just as/or almost equally. While it’s important to focus on this type of cancer, all cancers need more funding and more advertising to promote symptoms-afterall there are a lot of types out there and they affect women, men and even children.

Em // Posted 7 April 2011 at 6:45 pm

Men can have breast cancer too… Just thought that shouldn’t be overlooked as Mel J referred to it as a ‘women’s illness’.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 8 April 2011 at 10:23 am

Breast cancer is ‘sexy’ because otherwise why do we have so many campaigns focusing on disembodied females. I do not see campaigns focusing on disemboided males with regards to testicular cancer. But then women exist for men to exploit and this time it is in the name of ‘cancer prevention.’

One poster rightly raises the issue of studying how and why cancer is such a huge disease – yet to date there is little being done about this. Instead women are told it is in their genes or any number of pseudo claims are being made concerning why women contract breast cancer. One might as well blame women for daring to breathe because this can cause breast cancer! Stupid I know – but the claims medical establishment are equally as stupid.

(No I am not dismissing the terrible suffering women have to endure when they contract this disease).

We are now bombarded with claims that portraying breast cancer as something ‘sexy’ is fine because the marketeers whilst profiting are also supposedly donating money to cancer charities.

We can ignore how appallingly women cancer patients continue to be treated because after all women’s bodes are innately faulty and when they contract cancer they can immediately be subjected to a barrage of drug treatments irrespective of whether or not these work. Then too the drug industries are not interested in prevention or discovering the reasons why cancer happens – no they prefer to create new and ever more toxic drugs because they are only interested in profit.

Cancer is a huge profitable industry for big pharma (aka the pharmaceutical industry) and no promoting the idea that wearing ‘pink’ will somehow help female cancer patients is a marketing ploy. We should be demanding that far more emphasis be placed on discovering how and why cancer is occurring. And no it is not primarily due to heredity – the environment and men’s casual use of deadly chemicals is I suspect having a huge effect on our world – but then far better to promote breast cancer as ‘sexy’ rather than focus on the real issues.

As regards attemption to derail the issue by saying ‘men contract cancer too.’ That is correct – but that is not the issue – the issue is why the big drug industries and cancer charities are delibrately exploiting women by promoting the notion that wearing ‘pink’ will help raise cancer awareness. We want to know why cancer happens rather than being admonished to wear pink or to publicly state what colour our underwear is.

I don’t see men being asked what colour their knickers are bcause this will supposedly raise men’s awareness of testicular and prostrate cancer. No men are treated with dignity whereas women – well we can be exploited by the marketeers bcause we aren’t human.

Ana // Posted 8 April 2011 at 12:23 pm

Genes DO play a very important part in this and as someone involved in the disgnosis of such patients and the also the prescreening that the NHS does with colon cancer, breast cancer and several others to ensure family members are made aware of such passed down mutations, i can tell you the claim genes don’t play a part is false. They do not play the ONLY part, but they do play a very large part and various cancer therapies now actually target the mutations within genes to actually treat the cancer.

Knowing that genes are part responsible does not makes anyone ‘to blame’ for their cancer as you suggest it does to women- or you’d be sayign that makes all cancer sufferers, CF, FRAX, any genetic disease going sufferers to blame for their condition. People cannot help the random DNA mutations any more than they can help involuntary breath- but that doesn’t stop the fact that some genes- BRACA1, 2, Ras etc- play a part-especially when overexpressed or mutated.

Of course environment is a factor, some things can cause mutations in genes/cells or push for over/under expression but that doesn’t dismiss the gene factor which is why the NHS does such rigorous screening of people whose direct family members have had cancers that are related to gene mutation. We have numerous familyy members coming in to be screened for breasted cancer and colon cancer (mainly HNPCC) to ensure that they are iven advice on which symptoms to look out for and regular GP checks. (Of course said advice should be open to all but that needs promoting more itself).

Of course big pharm industries look into the causes of cancer, do they to such a degree to cure all-no but each cancer and each individual is unique and needs to be ttreated as such. Big phar is just interested in the majority and so sells based on that. And yes, they are interested in making money but the NHS and various charities also fund NHS and academic research into cancers-which look for reasons behind cancers developing and possible targets to treat.

I have to be honest, your comment comes off as ranting and is misinformed in parts. While I agree with you that ‘pink is sexy’ is stupid to be promoted and pushing breasts into the front to make it more so is even more sexy, women primarily promote this themselves, through pink and facebook and all these activities that *we* push- a lot of other people are actually unhappy (despite a small percentage contracting breast cancer) that breast cancer and pink gets so much attention while male orientated cancers and gender unrelated ones get less.

The issue ‘are women are being exploited’ and how do we stop it is as important as the other issue highlighted by the article ‘why is it only breast cancer, why are not all cancers treated equally in the eyes of the public/sponsers.;

Josephine Tsui // Posted 8 April 2011 at 12:53 pm

It’s true, genetic material is very important for determining one’s strategy to cancer prevention. Having worked in the medical labs for a few years, there has been breath-taking research on breast cancer.

Further, I think what Jennifer Drew is trying to make is cancer prevention can suddenly become a burden for the care takers of the house-hold (Doctors feel it’s a personal insult if her husband gets sick, for example) which is a fair point.

I’ve done some significant research in prostate cancer. The advances of research have really helped men to detect cancer earlier so that it doesn’t impede on their quality of life earlier. Though echoing masculinist comments, I find many men fear getting checked for prostate cancer because of the fear of the procedure (though people don’t realise now you can have a simple blood test to determine if your PSA counts indicate an inflamed prostate). 1 in 4 men will die WITH prostate cancer, not OF prostate cancer. This is something the masculinist movement should really shout about!

I’m also interested if the medical research of non-gendered cancers have utilised a gendered analysis in their research. For example, lung cancer with a rise and prevalence of smoking amongst young girls, but a decrease of smoking in young boys.

But it still begs the question, is it fair to utilise the popularity of breast cancer if it funds ALL cancer research? Or is it simply utilising sex as a tool to sell? Many breast cancer survivors have found it empowering as some of them feel they’ve lost their sense of womanhood after a mastectomy. But then what about men who are impotent after prostate or testicular cancer?

Eratosthenes // Posted 8 April 2011 at 1:06 pm

“But given that lung cancer now kills nearly as many women as men, and more women than breast cancer, shouldn’t we be focusing a bit more on stopping girls from smoking?” I agree. But hy not focus on stopping boys from smoking as well?

Ana // Posted 8 April 2011 at 1:48 pm

But it still begs the question, is it fair to utilise the popularity of breast cancer if it funds ALL cancer research?”

No it,s not. But it’s worth pointing out that though some runs- race for life etc-go to all cancers some are directly for breast cancer alone. An interesting point a friend made to me though seeing this article was distrubtion of funds- are they proportionate or do the promoted ones gain more funding?

What needs to happen is more general cancer sponsorship needs to be made and the other cancers need promoting more- not just to gain money and support but also to educate those unaware. A good friend of mine was alarmingly unaware that bleeding from your anus on a daily occurrence is not a normal activity and can be related to various things including cancer. But then i think there’s a lot of health stuff unpromoted in this country-which should be. If you go on the CDCs webpage they have much info about disease and illness, many youtube ads- but these ads to not reach everyone and should be available of many other types of media.

“cancer prevention can suddenly become a burden for the care takers of the house-hold”

I don’t understand this. You cannot *prevent cancer* you can do everything to avoid but that won’t neccessarily work. Non smokers/drinkers/healthy folks who show no reason-in terms of things that can cause cancer environmentally- still get struck down. If doctors have this attitude then frankly, they shouldn’t be doctors because it shows ignorance as well as judgementalness, and considerign most of the doctors i knows smoke they tend not to judge. What i find more in terms of blame within the ‘prevention area’ smokers are highly blamed as are plane, heavy car exhaust drivers-etc.

Best bet is to check out pubmed, they contain all published articlesrelating to experiments, but it’s an extensive search given how much research has been done into cancer as a whole

One interesting thing i’ve noticed knowing a few people who’ve had cancer is how many of them actually hate the term ‘beating cancer’ because largely (in the opinions of those I know at least) they haven’t ‘beaten anything’ because there’s the chance it could come back and they need regular screens still. If found it interesting to hear that more because several of the other people in the group *didn’t* realise that. They though once gone, you’d beaten for always. Which is another reason to promote all the cancer gorups as a whole?

Gela // Posted 8 April 2011 at 2:06 pm

Mel I sincerely feel for your plight stay strong for your mother…..

Yes the big C has undoubtedly touched nearly if not most of us at some point in our lives. The statistics are startling to say the least but lets give credit to the exposure and research out there. Some may argue that the current research is too commercially based on profit gain re pharma companies and that holistic treatment should be considered as an alternative.

Mel although your comments are heartfelt but I do feel you’re a Iittle biased in terms of breast cancer the most publicised lets not forget Skin Cancer is one of the biggest cancers, and others such as Testicular cancer, Sarcoma Cancer list is almost endless and yes they all need a push…………

It’s sad because it seems people only become engaged in this topic when someone in their family is affected. Indirectly this disease does affect someone somewhere……

@Jennifer what the hell are you on about???. Seems you’re more interested in your anti men campaingn rather than the issue at hand

masculinist // Posted 8 April 2011 at 4:48 pm

Ana …I agree with you with regard to genes etc. If anyone can come up with why normal healthy cells suddenly mutate and become tumours then they will crack cancer. There must be umptine reasons why this chemical reaction happens to some people and not others. I know our reseach team are looking deeply into the bodies immune system and how works for and against us.

Jennifer ….I had a look at the Everyman website and I found some their campaigns rather sexist and ‘jokey’. They want famous men to strip off for a Cosmo photo shoot …Gavin Henson was one, so thats not going to appeal to men, also the ‘check your balls’ adverts etc feel tacky and just plain silly…naked men in big pants……no ….. We need a big , serious campaing like Race for Life. I know there are other events like the ‘booby walk’ where women in their bra’s for charity which may not appeal , but RFL is so far ahead of any men’s events . There is a Run for Moore men only event. this raises money bowel cancer treatment. How people know about that ???? how many places does it take place ???????

I have been on several message boards which somone has said is Race for Life sexist ? Its not . Women can have their events , but we men need to get off our backsides and do our own events ….like I said on 19th November would be start , a Movember Race for Life ……

I will write to several large companies to see if they are doing anything on blue 19th June ………I’m not expecting any responses.

figleaf // Posted 8 April 2011 at 5:22 pm

There are a couple of excellent historical reasons why breast cancer gets so much attention compared to other types. The first is that for many years it really was neglected. For another, for at least as long the go-to solutions even for milder forms or cases of early detectioin were often really draconian — full double mastectomies, often with hysterectomies as well. Another reason is that compared to a lot of other cancers breast cancer is relatively easy to detect if caregivers just think to look so we started publicizing breast-exams. Ditto when mammograms made finding them in a timely manner even more effective. And finally, breast cancer to a certain extent became emblematic of a general neglect and/or cavalier dismissal of women’s health issues in general. That plus development of breast-cancer awareness and treatment has coincided with the development of contemporary feminism (both of which really started getting off the ground in the 1960s.)

And so with I think really, really good reason it became an easy, effective, and in terms of both social and health results quite productive cancer to organize around.

But as others here have mentioned, there are other cancers linked in what those who are inclined to blush call “bodily functions” that are still in the dark. Cervical cancer, prostate cancer, and of course colon/rectal cancer being the big ones.

If I hadn’t reluctantly agreed to an almost out-of-the-blue proctology visit almost 20 years ago I’d almost certainly be in the middle of dying of colon cancer today! I was fairly young for such an exam but it turned out I’d already started growing polyps. Which at the time were perfectly healthy but… very often become malignant in 15-20 years!

Now, ever five years I go in for my colonoscopy, and every five years they find and remove a few new polyps. And while it’s extremely undignified and more than a little uncomfortable I’ll get to watch my children grow up and, with luck, I’ll get to see my grandchildren grow up too.

What’s really tough about colon cancer, which kills more men and women than breast, prostate, and cervical cancer combined, is that even though it’s the the #3 killer it’s also both the most easily detected and easily prevented cancers. Until it becomes malignant. But you can (literally!) nip it in the bud, with 15 years to spare, if you’re just willing to submit to an exam. Which, unfortunately, most people aren’t.

Nor, as others have said, is colon cancer the only other easily detected, easily treated but neglected and therefore unnecessarily deadly cancer.

So. After saying all that I’m still going to say I think breast-cancer awareness, screening, and of course treatment initiatives continue to be really important. Even though nobody can really say it’s a neglected “lady parts” illness anymore. They’re important not least because unlike colon or skin cancer, or even some kinds of lung cancer, early detection and treatment does not automatically equal successful treatment. (Despite several years of aggressive treatment the wonderful blogger at Plain(s)feminist just passed away from it. Waaay too young!)

Rather than deprecate breast-cancer awareness I think it’s a better idea to advance awareness of other cancers. To the extent we’re getting more lifestyle synchronization between men and women we’re beginning to see more women with illnesses that tradition tended to identify as “male,” including cancer, heart disease, and so on… with the result that they’ve often been overlooked or misdiagnosed in women. (The same biases in reverse have consequences as well as with the invisibility of breast cancer in men.) With the result that even when they’re “gender neutral” diseases I think they, like breast cancer, should still be taken very seriously as issues of gender.

Oof! Sorry to have been so long-winded.


polly // Posted 9 April 2011 at 12:47 am

Sorry about your mum’s illness Mel, as you say it’s a common cancer that doesn’t get much publicity.

The only point of ‘awareness’ campaigns surely is to raise people’s knowledge of early symptoms and encourage them to get them checked out and treated. A member of my family had prostate cancer last year – fortunately it was discovered in the very early stages and was therefore treatable simply by surgery. This by the way wasn’t because of any awareness campaign, but because his wife is a nurse who works for a cancer hospital – did the Movember campaign actually lead to any heightened awareness of actual symptoms of prostate cancer I wonder?

But the biggest killer of women is heart disease, and yet myths still persist that women don’t have heart attacks. Even among doctors. Another massive killer – indirectly – is osteoporosis, many thousands of women die annually following hip fracture. How many of us know the symptoms or causes of that?

I’m sure we’re all aware of breast cancer by now, but I still don’t know how you’re meant to spot symptoms, I’ve read so much conflicting advice I’m totally confused. The nurse at my doctor’s surgery asked if checked my breasts but didn’t explain how you were meant to do it. So what is the point of all this ‘awareness’?

Mel J // Posted 9 April 2011 at 10:21 am

Thanks for everyone’s comments and sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to them – I’m still getting the hang of this blogging lark!

I’m sad to hear so many people have been touched by cancer in its many forms. Just to be clear, I was never suggesting that we shouldn’t raise awareness of breast cancer, just that we should question why this seems to get the bulk of publicity and funding when so many other things end the lives of women (and men) early.

Obviously there will be an inherent bias in my post as I’m writing from the perspective of seeing my mum’s struggle with cancer. Her symptoms were ignored by the medical establishment for nearly 2 years when, as figleaf pointed out, it is easily detectable. I wonder whether a lump in her breast would have been ignored in the same way? I doubt it. So part of my rant is directed at those who should know better – doctors.

I also find the connection between ‘women’s products’ and breast cancer/pink very cynical – why can’t women’s magazines and cosmetic companies support other causes? I suspect because breast cancer is seen as sexier – or at least easier to talk about.

I think fun runs and the like have a valid place – I’m never sure how much they actually raise ‘awareness’ (as pointed out by polly) but they certainly help people to feel supported by a community that understands what they are going through – and help to raise funds for research and treatment.

But as masculinist points out – where are the fun runs for men? This clearly needs to change. And I’m all for women-only spaces (and regularly defend this concept to people that see it as somehow sexist) but I actually think fun runs should be open to all. As pointed out, breast cancer directly affects men too (albeit very, very rarely) but what about the indirect effects on husbands, fathers, sons and brothers? We should all be coming together on this, in my opinion.

Where do we go from here? How about we start out own facebook campaigns to raise awareness of other cancers and illnesses that take it away from the trivial and raise actual awareness – how about simply sharing the stories of people we know who’s illnesses could have been prevented/treated earlier if people just talked about things more. And instead of buying the pink anti-perspirants, we just give our money to fund cancer research directly (seeing as the aluminium in anti-perspirants has been linked to breast cancer anyway).

What do others think?

Anna // Posted 9 April 2011 at 10:30 am

Can we ease back on the stopping people trying to smoke thing now? The health dangers are well-publicised, it’s an excellent tax earner, and god knows I’m fed up of people trying to save me from myself every time I spark up. Cigarettes are not crack. People aren’t unbelievably compelled to smoke them – it’s each and every time up to the smoker. Can’t we just let smokers be?

Mel's Mum // Posted 9 April 2011 at 1:56 pm

Just being reading all the comments on Mel’s first blog; very interesting and some good points. Pleased to see she’s got people thinking and ‘talking’. Re. genes and cancer: I know there is often a connection but in my case NO. I am slim, have a healthy pescatarian lifestyle, and no one in my family, in living memory, in living memory has had cancer. Our family killers have been heart problems and Alzheimer’s, the latter being the one I feared most. Just goes to show you never know what’s going to come along and bite you on the bum! Keep writing, I am.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds