“Breast Cancer Awareness”: Haven’t We Had Enough?

Breast Cancer Mortality Over Time

I am positive that I’ll risk the ire of all around me (and forgive the cynical tone of this post), but can we say that we’ve had entirely enough of “Breast Cancer Awareness?” Is all of this “awareness” translating into reduced breast cancer incidence or mortality? According to the graph to the left, breast cancer mortality has been declining since the early 80’s, well before the Pink Ribbon started. In fact, breast cancer incidence and mortality among African American women has remained flat since the early 90’s DESPITE multi-billion dollar commercial campaigns.

Breast cancer is serious. I don’t think anyone could argue against that well established fact. However, other types of cancer are equally serious. There are more cases of and more deaths due to lung cancer every year than breast cancer, but I have yet to see “Lung Cancer Awareness Month” nor to see NFL football players and supermodels taking up anti-smoking campaigns (Update: Lung Cancer Awareness Month is November. That I never knew this, but was well aware that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is October should speak loads to the disconnect of Pink Ribbon campaigns.)

The distribution of research funding for breast cancer as compared with other types of cancer is nearly indefensible. Funding for breast cancer was higher in 2011 than both colorectal and lung cancer COMBINED, despite vastly lower incidence and mortality. In fact, there were nearly four times as many deaths from lung cancer than breast cancer in 2011. Granted, lung cancer and colorectal cancer incidence has been dropping for some time.

Of course, this is an image issue. Women with breast cancer, however, are seen as victims, where people with lung cancer (smoking) and colon cancer (hamburgers) are seen as somehow deserving of their fate. It’s worth noting that people do not contract breast cancer as a result of the aggressive and barely regulated marketing of known cancer causing substances with the aim of earning mass profits for stock holders in major global companies.

If you have one, check your retirement portfolio. A good number of you are depending on smokers to fund you in your old age, most of whom are on the bottom rung on the US income ladder. A lot of you willingly enable the predatory tactics of arguably the most unethical of all business models (you might notice that defense equities are in there as well).

The images of breast cancer are misleading. Despite mass media campaigns picturing young healthy women as the prime targets of breast cancer, the average age at first diagnosis is 61 years of age. Unlike some other cancers, most women who contract breast cancer survive the disease. Contrary to the ads, African-Americans are at higher risk for the disease than white women.

Images of low class homeless people smoking $7 a pack cigarettes are not nearly as appealing, of course. I think that Americans would be hesitant to buy lung colored rubber wristbands and iPad covers. Besides, could well meaning college age girls get behind a poster that featured a crusty guy smoking Pall Malls in a trailer park?

The aggressive marketing and egregious profit making surrounding breast cancer is yet another example of the disconnect between the public’s perception of disease and health related issues and reality. Personally, I tire of “awareness.” Advocates of public health have more to do than merely make people “aware.” (Is there anyone in the US who isn’t yet “aware” of breast cancer?) I can’t help by believe that the focus on breast cancer “awareness” plays right into the hands of those who would have us flatly ignore more serious killers such as tobacco induced lung cancer.

Public health comrades: Get with it. At this point, breast cancer is suffering from diminishing returns. We pump more and more resources, both financial and informational, and barely make a dent into current trends of incidence and mortality. Meanwhile, more serious issues which afflict the most vulnerable of populations languish.

You guys are free to tear me apart if you like. Forunately, I’m not alone.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

4 responses to ““Breast Cancer Awareness”: Haven’t We Had Enough?”

  1. mikey2ct says :

    As a reformed smoker, I agree Pete. 100%

  2. Pete Larson says :

    Good job on the reformation. It’s the one thing where quitters win.

  3. mikey2ct says :


  4. teacherpatti says :

    I agree with you too. I think that breast cancer “awareness” is often used as a safe women’s issue that everyone can get behind. I love how the NFL wears pink one Sunday a season, as if they give a shit about women’s issues. If they really cared, perhaps they could work on stopping rape (starting with some of their players), work on equal pay for equal work or stopping sexual harassment/sexist comments. But since no one gives a shit about those things, we instead show how pro-woman we are by wearing pink and talking about breast cancer.

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