Save the tatas. Tough guys wear pink. Hope is always in season. It’s “Pinktober,” or Breast Cancer Awareness month. Every October everything gets covered in pink—from travel mugs to totebags to even the footballs used by the NFL. They are ostensibly here to promote “breast cancer awareness.” Many women get breast cancer so this public consciousness-raising must be good, right? Maybe not.
From a historical perspective, the movement originated from a time when people whispered the word cancer, and the stigma prevented women from getting help. Having cancer made them social pariahs. Thankfully, that’s changed to a large degree. There are many local and national advocacy and support groups for women who have breast cancer. It is no longer in the shadows and that’s a good thing.
But what was once a necessary effort to educate people on the facts about breast cancer and its treatment has turned into a culture where buying Pepto-Bismol pink travel mugs fulfills a moral obligation to do something about this disease. The mass marketing of breast cancer has distorted women’s views of their overall health risks.
Can A Person Be Too Aware?
Women’s breast cancer awareness is so high that women worry much more about getting breast cancer than about getting heart disease, and that is a problem. Women are ten times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer (approximately 430,000 annual deaths vs. 40,000). And importantly, there are many proven and powerful lifestyle choices women can make to decrease their risk of heart disease like not smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising. Not much is known about why breast cancer develops (the cause of 70% of all cases is still unknown). If you are constantly reminded of your risk for breast cancer, you will be less likely to focus your thoughts and energy on a disease that is much more likely to kill you, and that you have considerable power to prevent. Flooding the media and marketplace with breast cancer awareness creates an anxiety about something that is less common, and which you are much less able to do anything to prevent.
Also, this “pink ribbon culture” deflects attention from critically analyzing the screening and treatment of breast cancer. In her insightful book, “Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health,” medical sociologist Gayle A. Sulik discusses the ways this feel-good culture keeps us from focusing on what really needs attention.
Mammograms: Effective or Not?
Sulik notes that “in much of pink ribbon culture, scientific controversies are avoided or simplified.” In particular, the benefits of mass mammography as a detection tool is strongly recommended to women, despite the fact that the benefits versus the risks of mammography are highly debated in the scientific community.
When researchers examine the consequences of mammogram screenings they find that for every one thousand women who start mammograms at fifty and are screened for twenty years, two to three will avoid dying from breast cancer. But also, two hundred women will have at least one false positive test, which can result in an unnecessary biopsy. And heartbreakingly, breast cancer will be overdiagnosed in fifteen women.
What does overdiagnosed mean? It refers to the diagnosis and treatment of cancers that would never had led to clinical symptoms in the woman’s lifetime, meaning the tumor would have never made her sick. It means that for every 1,000 women regularly screened, fifteen women suffer through the surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and anti-estrogen treatment that breast cancer treatment often entails when they didn’t have to. Beyond the pain and mental anguish, women treated with radiation have a higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease.
I’m not saying all women shouldn’t get mammograms. I’m saying that it is nowhere near as simple or beneficial as we’ve been led to believe. Each woman needs this complex information to decide with her doctor if regular mammograms make sense for her
But we don’t talk about that during Pinktober. We wear pink bracelets and watch football players throw pink footballs. If women really want hope, they have to fight through the day-glow pink and look for the hard facts.
If you want to learn more about how to get accurate information about your health, buy my book The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About PMS Keep Women Down, available everywhere books are sold.