It has been more than 30 years since the advent of the pink ribbon. Most of us have grown up expecting October to be full of ribbon-bedazzled clothing, cancer-branded flashlights and frothy cocktails, all marketed toward the cause of curing breast cancer.
The trio of mammographic screening, early detection and lives saved have been tied together with a pink ribbon and served to us ceremoniously each year, and we have swallowed the marketing whole. But what if all that we believe is wrong? What if the story has changed, and the money that you donate yearly in honor of a loved one goes toward nothing useful?
As a woman living with metastatic breast cancer, I have a vested interest in the world getting this right. Yet so far, we are failing miserably.
The major charity in the “fight” against breast cancer is the Susan G. Komen Foundation. They focus their considerable dollars on the concept of awareness, spending the bulk of their donations on education. In the last fiscal year, only 18 percent was allocated to researchers trying to find a cure. And 11 percent was spent on screening, which merely finds cancer, and seemingly nothing was used for patient support once diagnosed.
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It’s hard today to imagine a cure for cancer coming from a pamphlet rather than a research institution, yet Komen still avows that finding cancer early means death is prevented. If only.
In the intervening decades, researchers have learned that breast cancer is not one disease; there are four main subtypes – which do not progress obediently from Stage 1 to Stage 4. In many women diagnosed early, myself included, cancer makes an end-run straight to incurable. No woman is safe – breast cancer can mysteriously metastasize years past the original diagnosis, a truth not reflected in statistics.
If the awareness/mammography duo was as powerful as we are led to believe, we’d have seen the death rate drop as compliance with mammography went up. Sadly, this hasn’t happened; since the 1980s the number of deaths from breast cancer has held steady at 40,000 women per year.
It’s true that women are living longer with metastatic breast cancer, a fact for which I am incredibly grateful. This, however, is attributed to better treatments and new breakthroughs in cancer care. The drug that put me in remission after years of battering chemotherapy was approved in 2012.
The National Institutes of Health is facing serious cutbacks, putting progress at risk. I’d like to think that if the Komen foundation, a marketing juggernaut, could step up and remember its long-ago promise to work “for the cure” and dedicate 50 percent of its donations toward research, major strides could be made.
I dream of a discovery that will allow other women to have the gift of extra years that I have been given. That will take longer if the Komen foundation stays stuck on the idea of early detection as the only means to deal with breast cancer.
Not only does the money need to flow in the right direction, so does the national conversation.
As you are bombarded with pink this October, as you are asked to donate to a breast cancer cause at the checkout counter, ask some questions: “Does this donation truly support a cancer patient? Does it go toward the already-achieved concept of awareness, or will it go where a difference can be made?”
Think deeper and more critically about what it is you are supporting and do some research yourself. Don’t donate if money doesn’t go toward cancer research or direct patient support. It is time to put the archaic concept of awareness to rest and focus on a cure.
Ann Silberman, who lives in Sacramento, was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2009 and metastatic cancer in 2011. Read her blog at butdoctorihatepink.com.