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Breast Cancer Month – Awareness or Overkill?

Letter by Anne Rochon Ford, Co-Director of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health

Dear friends and colleagues,

It’s that time of year again, and as noteworthy as the fall colours in my part of the country is the colour of pink to be found everywhere, marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

On October 7th, Parliament Hill was “bathed in pink” in a campaign cosmetic manufacturer Estee Lauder is sponsoring as part of the month’s activities. An unimaginable array of pink-coloured consumer items (some of them laced with carcinogenic compounds) call out to us from all directions. This morning on my way to work I was struck (metaphorically speaking) by a fully pink taxi cab covered in Awareness Month messages. For those of us involved in women’s health who have advocated for a focus on prevention and getting at the cause of breast cancer, as well as for many women who are living with the disease, this can be a most cringe-worthy time.

While more cancers are being caught, rates of death from the disease have decreased only slightly. Early detection is, of course, important but it does not get at preventing the disease in the first place. The need has never been greater to understand the causes of breast cancer that go beyond individual behavioural and lifestyle changes and consider influences that are occupational and environmental in nature.

A recent article in the LA Times nicely summarizes the down side of all this “awareness through pink”. A few excerpts:

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month “was helpful at the time, but it has outlived its usefulness,” says Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer surgeon at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book.

You see this message that the best prevention is early detection, but that’s not prevention, that’s finding a cancer that’s already there,” Love says.

Screening tests like mammograms and self-exams are most adept at finding the indolent cancers, says Dr. H. Gilbert Welch of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in Lebanon, New Hampshire. As a result, the more we screen, the more women we subject to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for cancers that never would have harmed them. A paper published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that for every life saved by a screening mammogram, five to 15 other women needlessly became diagnosed and treated.

Yet, the organizers of the awareness campaign say there’s no need to revamp their message.

There are more and more signs of hope that others are questioning the current approach to Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I feel they deserve our support.

Dr. Samantha King elaborates on her concerns about pink ribbon campaigns in her book and documentary, Pink Ribbons Inc.

Kudos to Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM) who have mounted a spirited campaign encouraging us to sign a petition directed at Avon Canada pointing out the contradiction between their manufacturing of cosmetics containing chemicals that are contributing to cancer, while purporting to be concerned about women’s health.

You will no doubt be approached – if you haven’t been already – to donate money towards fundraising events “for the cure.” If you have contributed to this in the past, please consider matching that donation to organizations whose attention is truly focused on breast cancer prevention: Breast Cancer Action Montreal or Prevent Cancer Now.