I won’t be wearing pink this month, or taking part in a breast cancer walk, or donating money to breast cancer research. It’s not that I don’t think beating breast cancer is a good cause. It is. I believe that to my core. Money raised by breast cancer charities has increased screening and funded important research. It has saved lives, including those of people I know and love.
My issue is that the amazing job that breast cancer charities have done raising funds and awareness has exacted a heavy toll on awareness and fundraising opportunities for other types of cancer — like colorectal cancer, the one I am currently living with.
As cancers go, it’s a big one. An estimated 135,430 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year, and 50,260 will die from it. That puts it in the top three cancers for both new cases and deaths. Yet when I told family and friends about my diagnosis, many didn’t know what colorectal cancer was, let alone that it was a leading cause of cancer deaths. When I was being treated — losing my hair and sporting a chemotherapy-related pallor — I was often asked if I had breast cancer and if I was going to lose my breasts. I lost a sizable chunk of my colon, but no one ever asked about that.
I could not find a colorectal cancer support group in Westchester County, N.Y., where I live. There were, however, many breast cancer support groups there.
I understand why. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. An estimated 252,710 will be diagnosed with it this year. But with 40,610 estimated deaths, it is far from the deadliest. Lung cancer takes the top spot, with 222,500 new cases and 155,870 deaths.
I share these statistics solely to bring some perspective to the issue. A cancer diagnosis is devastating, no matter the type.
Breast cancer survivors, charities, and the businesses that have partnered with them have done an enviable job raising awareness and funds, as well as providing services and support to patients and their families. Thanks to the work of these charities, many communities have organizations that provide emotional, social, and educational support for breast cancer patients and their families.
These types of services should be available for all cancer patients. But not all cancer charities are as well-funded, and so can’t offer as much to patients. It goes back to the disparities in fundraising and awareness.
I am tired of well-intentioned people asking me to donate money to breast cancer. I want someone to ask me to donate to help support research on pancreatic cancer, find a cure for childhood leukemia, or help the quarter of a million of Americans diagnosed with lung cancer every year. That rarely, if ever, happens. And that’s a problem.
I am not involved in fundraising and know nothing about the nuances of raising money to support cancer research. Yet I wonder, why doesn’t the sales associate at Bloomingdale’s ask me to donate to support colorectal cancer? Why doesn’t the cashier at my local grocery store cajole me into doing my part to find a cure for glioblastoma?
The disparity goes beyond money for research and supportive services. Awareness is skewed as well.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, marked by a slew of activities. Even the National Football League gets into the act with its Crucial Catch initiative that promotes breast cancer screening. Throughout October, NFL players, coaches, and referees will wear pink game apparel. That’s great. Increased awareness has resulted in better and more accessible screening that has saved lives, which is an important outcome.
The unfortunate thing is that hardly anyone knows when Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is. Or Brain Cancer Awareness Month. Never mind what color their awareness ribbons are. (March and May, and dark blue and gray, respectively.) Perhaps the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats program, in which players wear custom cleats that reflect their commitments to charitable causes, will help, but it’s just one weekend and the players will be supporting myriad causes, from suicide prevention to food insecurity, autism, sickle cell disease, childhood cancer, and more.
Celebratory months and ribbons aside, these awareness initiatives can have tremendous value in increasing familiarity with the symptoms of a disease and providing information on early detection programs. Similar initiatives for less-prominent cancers would save countless lives.
I’m not suggesting that people stop donating to breast cancer charities or stop wearing pink ribbons in October. I just think that lingerie companies should have fundraising initiatives for colorectal cancer as well as breast cancer (hey, they make panties as well as bras), grocery stores should take up collections for melanoma research, and that this October, instead of NFL game officials wearing pink caps and wristbands every weekend, maybe on alternate Sundays they could wear emerald green caps and wristbands. After all, October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month too.
Tamlyn Oliver is managing editor for Biocompare, a life science media company based in San Francisco.