Breast Cancer: The Most Important of All the Cancers (?)

It would seem that breast cancer is more important than any other type of cancer.  Though breast cancer was fourth in both number of new cases and deaths in 2010*, its month of awareness trumps all others.  Does anyone even know that Prostate Cancer Awareness month is September? As in last month, the month before October, the month before Breast Cancer Awareness month? It seems one cannot escape Breast Cancer Awareness this month as it is blaring from the television, viral campaigns nearly reach the level of spam, pink ribbons are plastered all over restaurants and retail shops, even professional football players are sporting pink.  The sheer volume of business that jump on the pink band wagon is astronomical.

It was not until writing this article that I was even aware which month (if any) had been assigned to prostate cancer and while the gender stereotypical color blue has been deemed the color of prostate cancer, not many are aware of it.  And certainly the television, professional athletes and local retail establishments were not sporting any sort of Prostate Cancer Awareness paraphernalia last month.  Yet prostate cancer rates are close to, and in some years surpass, breast cancer rates in number of new cases and deaths each year.

So why is breast cancer more important than prostate cancer? Simple. Breasts are sexy (particularly to the white male hetro demographic that rules consumerism as the ‘norm’). Its a little exciting to encourage a woman to feel up her breasts each month in order to make sure she is to ‘healthy’.  Prostate cancer on the other hand is anything but sexy. Checking for prostate cancer wafts hints of homosexuality as a doctor (presumably male) gently probes a man’s anus. Presented in such a way, I don’t think prostate cancer would appear sexy to anyone–but thats the point–cancer is not supposed to be sexy.  Cancer awareness should not illicit any sort sexual connotations what-so-ever!!!

Yet, somehow, just like everything else, breast cancer gets enormous attention because its sexy.  Between the ”I Love Bobbies” bracelets and the “save the ta-tas” campaign and the sexually charged Facebook Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns, not to mention the beautiful models that traverse the landscape of breast cancer awareness visual representation, breast cancer seems to be about nothing but sexy breasts–and who doesn’t want to support that?

Resources:  The American Cancer Society

*Depending on how sites of cancer are organized (ie by body part or system) breast cancer was either second (by body part only) or fourth (by system of the body) in 2010 in both number of new cases and number of deaths.

About Kimberly:
Kimberly is a law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. When not studying or writing, she can be found devouring video games and books. She is commonly caught muttering under her breath a critique of the consumeristic mechanism that constantly insists on bombarding her personal space.


  1. It is worth noting that the number one cancer killer of women isn’t breast cancer either, it is lung cancer, but our culture of victim blaming of lung cancer victims means a distinct lack of attention about diagnosis, treatment, and research.

  2. I tend to disagree, just a little.

    Breast cancer foundations (NBCF, Komen, etc.) were founded by women who were either survivors or lost a loved one to the disease.It’s all about how the organizations were marketed and the smart men and women that worked to make them as strong as they are.

    These are private efforts. People can get together and raise money for a cure for cat hairballs if they want, it doesn’t matter. If P&G wants to sponsor those folks, more power to them.

    The businesses that “jump on the pink bandwagon” are either solicited or offer to donate a portion of sales proceeds or lump sums. I think it’s just nice that they’re willing to do SOMETHING.

    If people are so concerned about prostate and other cancers, start a foundation and get the word out. Raise money. Find sponsors. Every brand likes to be connected to something that can make them look better.

    Breast cancer isn’t limited to just women, though, and that’s really the key issue. A LOT of men are diagnosed with breast cancer, and because we’ve designated it as a “chick disease,” they don’t get their due.

    That being said, prostate cancer is a BIG deal. I hope that all of the men that I love get exams that could save their lives. I know they think it’s icky, but some of the most ass-backward men that I know endure yearly screenings.

    It’s like going to the gyno – we don’t like to talk about it, it’s not particularly sexy either. Having a doc probe your vag is just as invasive as the anus. (and as you age, ladies, they’re going to poke around there too.)

    I may be wrong, or underestimating the patriarchy, but I think breast cancer awareness is so huge because a group of women banded together to save their OWN ta-tas, not just everyone else’s.

    Additionally, much of this awareness is about early detection, mammograms, and prevention. There’s absolutely nothing “sexy” about getting your boobies smashed in a machine. Self-exams don’t turn me on much either, they actually scare the shit out of me.

    This isn’t to say that men don’t undervalue women’s health issues. I’m just saying that they undervalue their own.

    This all being said, I know some amazing people who do amazing work for breast cancer awareness, prevention, and research. You should support organizations like the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and Susan G. Komen.

    • Absolutely there are some great people out there doing really important work for breast cancer awareness and research, and absolutely breast cancer awareness and research is important. But I think there is something more going on that just good people working for a good cause. Labeling breast cancer as pink completely gender stereotypes and solidifies breast cancer as a “chick disease.” The fervid support of Breast Cancer Awareness month also rings of the classic damsel in distress pathos, reestablishing traditional gender roles and allowing patriarchy to reestablish the ‘norm’ while “fighting for a good cause” (women need a protector; women need saving, etc…).

      And I think there is important social commentary being communicated in the severe differences between support and awareness for breast cancer versus prostate cancer. Why are people not as concerned for prostate cancer as they are for breast cancer? The numbers are there–prostate cancer is just as abundant as breast cancer. There is some awareness for prostate cancer, but not nearly on the scale as breast cancer. Why? Breast Cancer awareness has turned into a means to commodify women and place their value in their breasts, in a really subversive way.

  3. Kim, I agree with most of what you’ve said, but I think that the predominance of pink items in the store has more to do with the fact that women account for 85% of consumer spending power. Men aren’t dictating the norms of consumer spending habits – women are. And if that’s the case, then it’s all the more important that we demand more than tokenism.

    Does buying a pink Kitchenaid mixer really do anything to help prevent or treat breast cancer? No. It doesn’t. Does it ensure that the government can’t strip away women’s access to reproductive health care services. No. It doesn’t.

    I agree – we need more than a boob grabbing campaign, or sexy Facebook status messages. We need a complete overhaul of the health care system so that women’s health isn’t seen as abnormal.

    • I know this issue is complicated and while women may be driving consumerism, corporations like the NFL are not driven by women consumers. So while your logic makes sense in some circumstances, there are other factors at play here. Those are the factors that I’m questioning.

  4. And for what it’s worth–the MLB is getting the word out on Prostate Cancer. Do their “special days” and celebrity survivor guests sitting down for a chat between innings get a tenth of the air time that the Viagra and Cialis commercials do? Not so much :)

    Maybe the trick is to remind men how much sex they won’t be getting if they’re dead …

    Cancer definitely isn’t sexy. But if sexy gets people to get a prostate exam or a mammogram, I guess I can live with it. As long as it’s not the only message out there.

  5. Not to mention the fact that breast cancer activism is hyper focused on a model that privileges testing and treatment as opposed to actually isolating the causes of breast cancer and eliminating them. I find it interesting that an incredibly large number of support for breast cancer research comes from corporations that produce the chemical pollutants that cause breast cancer.

  6. Kim,

    I think you make incredible points. But I think that BCA/BCR is based in a group of women who are fighting for each other, not ‘needing a protector.’

    And maybe the pink doesn’t bother me so much because pink rules?

    • Thanks for all the comments and feed back. I really do enjoy a good discussion.

      Amy-I don’t mean to say that the actual women and men working for the breast cancer foundations are in need a protector or are asking for one, its the way women and breast cancer are portrayed in the media and pop culture. It is this portrayal that lends itself to patriarchal constructs. If you look specifically at the advertising, the fact that the NFL wears pink for the entire month of October, or Neil Patrick Harris urging women to get tested on CBS during commercial breaks, the list goes on and on.

      I recognize that women are reclaiming pink and giving pink agency instead of allowing it to be passive which is great, but it still functions to overtly imply that breast cancer is gender specific.

      aj–Very interesting point about the focus on the testing and treatment rather than isolating causes. I don’t know the history of breast cancer and when it started to become prevalent, but very interesting connection to pollutants… I think you may have inspired some more research!

  7. Kimberly, if you plan on doing some more in depth research on this question (particularly about the environmental links to breast cancer) I really suggest reading No Family History by Sabrina McCormick. It’s a fantastic read. She criticizes the traditional research trajectory in mainstream breast cancer activism and goes into some serious detail about the biomedical complex that informs this dominant research method.

  8. Amy – what the HELL are you doing on a feminist website?

    Nice girls, in this breast cancer racket, finish last. The organizations you mention, like many, were probably good at the beginning, but have morphed into monsters.

    Please go peddle your pink.

    My daughter just had a 10 sample core biopsy taken. 10. That’s far too many. At that number, an excisional bx should have been ordered. You can’t play nice in any of this. On the other hand, you stay here, and I’ll keep looking for a truly feminist bc website.

  9. freewomyn says:

    J, I am sorry to hear about your daughter. But I’m a little confused about the source of your outrage that is being directed towards Amy. Amy and Kim are both advocating for cancer awareness, they are just taking different approaches. Feminism has room for everyone. So I’m just a little baffled at the anger that is being expressed over two feminists having a debate about the best way to get the word out about cancer prevention.

  10. Elizabeth (Aust) says:

    Unfortunately womens’ health care is very political and emotive, so a sense of balance has been lost. Women worry enormously about cervical cancer, but not mouth cancer, but they occur in roughly the same numbers. Why? We’ve been programmed to fear cervical cancer and not mouth cancer. Of course, both cancers are rare – the dangerous thing is the misinformation that is fed to women, so Govt-set targets can be achieved for expensive screening programs. This means many women now fear their own bodies, have been completely misled over the real threats to their lives, make bad decisions that can have seriously negative outcomes including allowing over-screening and over-treatment.
    Many women also need the (often false) reassurance they get from cervical and breast screening. How many women worry about bowel or lung cancer? Google anything to do with cervical and breast cancer screening and you’ll find forums, articles, awareness months, on and on…the rest fight for attention even though they kill FAR more women.

    I also believe the womens’ groups who pushed hard for cancer screening, are now part of the problem – new oppressors. Cancer screening is supposed to be an offer, legally and ethically, our informed consent is required, (we see how that works in prostate cancer screening) yet from the start, these programs were basically ORDERS – “you SHOULD”, “you MUST”…
    Yet another group exercising control over women, making decisions for them and accepting risk on their behalf. Paternalism in yet another form….more people directing us, “for our own good”.
    All highly disrespectful…

    We see misinformation, fudged statistics to scare and mislead, scare campaigns, unethical conduct including coercion (screening is “required” for the Pill or HRT or any sort of medical care in the States & Canada)) psychologists helping to shape programs to make women feel guilty or reckless or immature if they decline screening etc.
    IMO, men are not treated in this way. Risk information came out very quickly for prostate screening and doctors were reminded to obtain informed consent.

    You rarely even see an acknowledgment that women are entitled to refuse screening. Of all the screening tests, you are least likely to benefit from pap testing and most likely to be harmed – yet the most pressure is reserved for this test. Govts have committed millions and must show a result, even if that means biopsies for almost every woman at some stage. The lifetime risk of cervical cancer is 0.65% – one third to a half of women who get cancer have had a recent false negative or series of them – in the States, 95% of women will be referred at some stage for colposcopy and usually some sort of biopsy, in Australia – it’s 77%, the UK – 65%
    Normally high over-detection would rule out a test for mass screening purposes and especially for a rare cancer – you harm many, to possibly help a few.

    Of course, we’ll never “really” know whether any woman is helped by testing – astonishingly, this mass testing was started without controlled trials – any decrease in the death rate is grabbed as evidence that screening is working – but this cancer was in decline before screening started and we know other factors are relevant – better condoms, fewer women smoking, more hysterectomies and Dr Gilbert Welch in “Over-diagnosis” suggests better hygiene and less sexually transmitted disease. Stomach cancer for example has also declined over the years with no screening test – probably as a result of better diet.
    We do know for sure if any women are helped, the numbers are small – no more than 0.45%

    IMO, the rights and health of a small minority do not outweigh the rights and health of the vast majority of women who’d never have an issue with this cancer, but for screening.
    I’m constantly staggered by the dishonesty in cervical and breast cancer screening – how is it acceptable to treat women in this way?
    The risks of breast and cervical screening are suppressed (deliberately), the benefits of the tests are exaggerated and the threat of the cancer is overstated – women are IMO, processed to achieve Govt set targets with no respect for informed consent. Many women are left worse off…

    Our doctors are even paid to reach screening targets for pap tests – undisclosed to women – this is IMO, a potential conflict of interest. If women get any information at all, it usually comes from their GP, yet that GP is being rewarded behind the woman’s back to reach a screening target. No wonder most women are simply told they must or should screen – something totally inappropriate for something like cancer screening.

    I think the obsession with cervical cancer is out of all proportion to the risk and breast cancer also steels the limelight. Breast cancer is fairly common, but not as common as the screening authorities would have you believe – risk varies with your age group – the 1 in 8 figure that was released by Breast Screen UK is very misleading and might be right for a group of elderly women. Never accept the statistics released by pro-screening groups – also, do your own reading, never rely on their “facts” which are carefully worded to mislead you.

    I made an informed decision, as a low risk woman, not to have cervical screening more then 25 years ago and more recently rejected mammograms. I believe cancer screening is an enormous threat to our health and quality of life – we need to protect our healthy bodies and only accept tests that pass our risk v benefit assessment and are in OUR best interests.
    I’m not anti-screening, but I believe the entire area needs major change – balanced information must be provided to women and informed consent must be respected – the final decision to screen or not, to screen later or less often should rest with the woman. A high risk woman might want cervical screening, but the facts will also assist her to minimize risk – simply adopting the Finnish program will reduce the risk of false positives from 95% down to 35%-55%…the Finns have the lowest rates of cervical cancer in the world and refer the fewest women (fewer false positives).
    Also, decision aids should be provided to assist women – Dr Alexandra Barrett has produced an aid for women aged 40-49 considering a mammogram. (it’s online) also, the Nordic Cochrane Institute have produced a great summary of the, “Risks and benefits of mammograms” – at their website.
    Sadly, few women ever see this information….
    I think it’s great that we’re finally having these discussions – for decades we were all in the dark and had no idea of the actual benefits and risks of testing. Finally, that’s changing….

  11. ” So why is breast cancer more important than prostate cancer? Simple. Breasts are sexy (particularly to the white male hetro demographic that rules consumerism as the ‘norm’). Its a little exciting to encourage a woman to feel up her breasts each month in order to make sure she is to ‘healthy’.”

    Really? Only white males find breast sexy? That comment just adds insult to injury. Do white males have to be responsible for everything in your life?.

    • Totally agree Love. Her comments only serve to divide the sexes. She seems to have an axe to grind with white men. Why? Who knows……

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