Facts About Breast Cancer: Defining “Awareness”

Through the course of several blogs posts and a lively discussion here at Feminists For Choice an issue arose about breast cancer prevention and detection. Simply put: what are the guidelines and recommendations for breast cancer detection and prevention?  This doesn’t seem like an issues at all, a simple Google search should suffice to answer the question and the discussion should be moot.

Yet, what a simple Google search reveals is a plethora of websites promoting breast cancer awareness, a variety of “pink” products and plenty of opportunities to donate.  To find actual information on breast cancer the disease a little patience and some knowledge of website navigation is required. Both tools being supplied, what you will find is a variety of facts and figures about breast cancer that may or may not be current (or provide a date at all), and a multitude of contradictory information.  Many of the websites I found provided no source from which the “facts” about the breast cancer disease were acquired or provided vague links to home pages of breast cancer research sites, but did not point specifically to where the information was gathered.

The information that was provided focused on detection and treatment with little to no information about prevention. If information on prevention was provided, it was usually vague and was directed at individual lifestyle with no consideration for environmental factors. Sabrina McCormick’s book No Family History explores the correlation between environmental toxins and cancer and the motivations of industries that donate to cancer research while manufacturing carcinogenic toxins, toxins that are linked to causing cancer in the first place.  This element of cancer causes and  prevention goes mostly unacknowledged in all of the “cancer awareness” campaigns swirling about.

As I delved deeper into research about breast cancer, more and more disturbing ”facts” arose.  While I found very little supporting evidence, several awareness websites stated that giving birth before the age of 26 lowers a women’s risk of breast cancer and that Nuns have a higher incidence of breast cancer because the do not give birth.  One article proudly proclaimed “breast is best,” stating that “as far back as three centuries ago, scientists linked higher rates of breast cancer among some women to childlessness and their inability to use their breasts as nature intended.”  These claims are unfounded and promote a narrow world view of women, while simultaneously working to suppress female sexuality.

In essence what “Breast Cancer Awareness”  campaigns do is promote a false sense of awareness while solidifying an actual unawareness about breast cancer, all the while collecting money to continue this “awareness.”  The research into prevention is nearly non-existent and rarely talked about.  The mammogram (the old reliable breast cancer detecting machine), for which there is a presumed expectation that money donated to cancer research goes towards researching and improving, is old, antiquated technology, and  often times does more harm than good.  In the last decade there has been very little improvement and development in the study of breast cancer, despite the monies collected and the “awareness” provided.

Overall, health providers do not agree on the best course of prevention and diagnosis for breast cancer.  The effectiveness of mammograms is disputed and we are in desperate need for more advanced early detection technology. As supporters of breast cancer research and the people who get this terrible disease we need to be more critical of the Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns, demand better early detection methods and push for environmental cancer contributors to be recognized and more thoroughly researched.

Breast cancer awareness websites reviewed in the course of writing this article:

PinkRibbon.org

The American Cancer Society

National Breast Cancer Foundation

Susan G. Komen For the Cure

BreastCancerAwareness.com

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Avon Foundation for Women

TheBreastCancerSite.com

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.

Comments

  1. Great article, Kim. Your point about the mammogram really made me stop and think, because I assumed that breast cancer research HAD come a long way.

  2. I know, and with all the attention placed on breast cancer, we are led to think that everything possible is being done for breast cancer in terms of research and technology. Yet the truth of the matter falls quite short.

  3. I really appreciate this post, Kimberly. Very, very well done.
    One thing that came to mind when thinking about prevention is, what risk is there that an overload of such a discussion will only serve to scare women and even lead to an even wider dismissal of the facts? Did you read anything about which is more effective, early detection or a focus on prevention?

    I agree that the emphasis on raising money is a bit of a sham. I am familiar with mammogram machines and it really shocks me that more sophisticated methods of testing have not been developed given all the pretty pink products out there…

    I really value that you reviewed so many sites. Thanks so much for the research and writing!

    • Thank Janice! Most of the sites I reviewed did not recognize that there are differing facts out there and so they did not address your point about confusing or creating fear in people. The Susan G. Koman site does provide extensive information and they do give recommendations, but honestly the information section was so convoluted, I got lost a couple of times and then gave up. If a person sticks to one or two well known websites, they will probably get similar enough information not to be worried, mostly because the uncertainty in prevention and detection methods is fairly well hidden. WebMD was the only site that recognized that health care professionals disagree on particulars and encouraged readers to consult their personal physicians. The UCI Medical Center does mention new research involving estrogen, but I couldn’t find anything on improving/researching mammograms.

  4. Elizabeth (Aust) says:

    Excellent article, and I think the mixed messages we receive have left most women as confused as ever…self exam, don’t self-exam, screening from 40, no, make that 50 etc…
    Personally, I don’t listen to screening authorities, the Govt and most doctors – I assume I’m being told a “screening story” to encourage me to screen to achieve a target and satisfy lots of vested and political interests – my health doesn’t come into it, otherwise they’d respect informed consent and provide me with a balanced overview of the risks and benefits of testing – the sort of thing they do here for men with prostate screening.

    More damning research was released recently – a new study that found the fall in the death rate from breast cancer is about better treatments, and NOT screening. Prof Michael Baum, UK breast cancer surgeon has called for a halt to the program and is apparently taking legal action (with others) against the NHS for failing to obtain informed consent for women.
    The brochures in Australia are even worse than the NHS leaflet – not even an attempt has been made to inform women, but then we have no high profile advocates for informed consent for women in this country – the crickets are chirping – no one warns women of the critical omissions in the “information” or queries the “statistics” and asks for supporting references – we get a one-sided promotion of the test (and quite dishonest, IMO) and an order to screen – the entire focus is on the target of 70% of women aged 50-69 and justifying the very expensive program.
    The program is IMO, about politics, profits and power – so many vested interests and political agendas plus misguided gender and lobby/pressure groups. It’s an industry in Pink…that’s not a screening program.
    Take a look at the new research…and comments by Prof Baum.
    His latest lecture is on UTube and at his personal website, “Breast Cancer Screening: the inconvenient truths” – 35 minutes that could spare you a lot of grief.
    The Nordic Cochrane Institute (independent research and information group) have also produced a balanced leaflet for women, “The risks and benefits of mammograms” – throw the screening brochure in the rubbish bin and go straight to the facts.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/02/breast-cancer-screening?INTCMP=SRCH
    http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d4411
    http://www.cochrane.dk/
    http://www.michaelbaum.co.uk/MB/Home.html
    Good luck everyone – please, do your reading and make the best decision for YOUR body….an informed decision.
    Kimberley, once again, great piece of writing!

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