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Re-Evaluating the Risk of Breast Cancer
October 29, 2002
by Rondi Adamson

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as though we could not be aware of either breast cancer itself, or the month in which we are supposed to be keenly aware of it. Try to turn on the television and count how many seconds till someone mentions it, or until a celebrity talks about their own experience with the disease, or that of their mother, sister or aunt. Count how many seconds till someone tells you they're running for the cure. You won't make it to thirty. Log on to the internet or go to a department store and see how many products are offered to you along with a pink ribbon, the latter symbolizing that a portion of the money you spent will go to breast cancer research.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, except that it's disproportionate with the actual threat of the disease. Ask the average woman -- or man -- what the number one killer of women is and they will probably say breast cancer. But of course it's heart disease. Heart Disease Awareness Month was in February, and I don't recall being offered a ribbon the colour of an aorta or a valve, for example, every time I purchased low fat foods. I don't recall any celebrities doing advertisements reminding women not to fill their faces with Big Macs and fries and milkshakes and I don't remember hearing any public service announcements narrated by David Letterman. One in five women has some form of cardiovascular disease, and more than twice as many women die from heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined. Five times as many women die from heart attacks as from breast cancer.

Yet a recent survey indicates that four out of five women are unaware of the threat of cardiovascular disease. Breast cancer is our "biggest fear," something I heard a news anchor bleat out the other night, as he narrated a Breast Cancer Awareness feature. Well of course it is, given the massive publicity accorded anything even remotely associated with breast cancer. A year and a half ago a study came out suggesting that breast self-examination was useless. It received only a wee bit less publicity than September 11th. Two months ago another study -- this one suggesting that mammograms were useless -- made big waves.

Along with the fear-mongering is the myth that women's illnesses are underfunded, thanks to the evil hand of the male medical conspiracy. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, more money has been spent on breast cancer research than on any other type of cancer in the past 16 years. More generally, gender specific medical research has been tilted towards women for at least the last 15 years. Significantly more people yearly are diagnosed with prostate cancer than breast cancer, for example, yet according to the NIH, in 1998, $348.6 million went to breast cancer research, while prostate cancer garnered only $89.5 million. In the late 1990s women's health research overall was allotted 16% of the NIH budget and men's health only 5.7%. Which may be why heart disease gets the short shrift in attention. It is something that kills men, too, in even greater numbers than women.

As breast cancer became a poster disease for feminism in the 1980s, the attention it began to receive took on unreasonable proportions. In short, the intensity of funding, publicity and research around breast cancer is not based on need. It is based on politics. I have nothing against feminism and breast cancer publicity and research per se. But I do when it comes at the expense of other research. The heart, one can only conclude, is not as politically sexy as breasts, especially since so many hearts belong to old white males. So it doesn't seem to matter what a threat heart disease is to women. Not to mention that 1% of breast cancer exists in men and yet I've never seen Brad Pitt reminding men to perform breast self-examinations.

For a long time I was so afraid of breast cancer that I never examined my breasts. I finally spoke to my gynecologist about it, who sighed and told me I was not alone. Yes, he said, one in nine women will get breast cancer...provided every woman on the planet lives to be 100. And, he continued, if you do get it, yes, it is serious business, but three times out of four, not fatal. Take a baby aspirin every other day, he concluded, because heart disease really ought to be your biggest fear. Women have done women a disservice by insisting so much on "women's diseases." Creating hysteria where there needn't be any is destructive, and taking attention away from where it should be isn't much better.

Rondi Adamson is a writer in Toronto where she contributes to several magazines and newspapers. She has a regular column at the Ottawa Citizen, focusing on current events. Prior to beginning her writing career, she spent nine years overseas -- in Japan, France and Turkey -- working as an ESL teacher. (She can be reached at queenvalemon@aol.com).

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