Less Pink, More Prevention
Breast Cancer Awareness month. For years now, October is awash in all things pink, the color of breast cancer. Organizations around the country push out initiatives and events to raise awareness and raise funds for research.
It’s great. It probably does make a difference. It certainly makes us feel better; it makes us feel like we’re a part of something important.
But awareness isn’t enough. As we wrap up another October, it’s time to take a closer look at what ‘awareness’ actually does.
In many ways, it deadens the message. Breast cancer is now equated with a color, but very little behind it. It’s a movement that focuses on critical elements of fighting breast cancer, especially in self-screening and pushing women to undergo regular mammograms. But the movement does little to inform women on the factors that actually cause breast cancer, and does almost nothing to support advocacy to address the environmental factors that can increase risk.
There is ample evidence of occupational and environmental risks that are often left unaddressed by politicians. Helping to educate and inform legislators, not to mention empowering women in the workplace to identify risky exposure, would do more to prevent cancer in the first place. We know some specific risks; what is being done to protect women from exposure?
And that’s what needs to be stressed. We can prevent cancer, and we don’t have to wait for screenings and mammograms to save lives. Breast cancer is one of the cancers that is least likely to be associated with genetic causes. According to one study, only about 5–10% linked to genes or family history. That means as much as 90–95% of breast cancer cases are caused by lifestyle, environmental, or preventable factors. In all of the pink messaging you’ve seen over the past four weeks, have you heard anything about regulation, legislation, or education focused on the real cause of breast cancer? That information and that effort have been largely inconspicuous if present at all.
Many of these carcinogen exposures aren’t voluntary. They aren’t associated with lifestyle, physical activity, or diet. Even women who take care of their physical health can be put at a higher risk of breast cancer due to environmental exposures in the workplace, in skincare and health care products, in packaging and clothing, and even in the air they breathe. As a society, we know what is causing breast cancer, and any number of cancers, without doing much of anything to seriously reduce the risk and fix the problem.
Approximately one in eight women will face a breast cancer diagnosis. Over 600,000 women died of breast cancer last year, according to the World Health Organization. That’s approximately 15% of all cancer deaths in women. And we’re losing ground; more younger women are facing a breast cancer diagnosis in the US and around the globe, and that trend is expected to continue.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with awareness. Self-screening is a critical element in identifying tumors as early as possible. Until the United States has equitable and universal access to preventive healthcare, self-screening for all types of cancer is one of the few efforts that individuals from all walks of life can take part in to protect themselves. But if we really want to save lives and reduce cancer rates, we need to turn pink ‘awareness’ into a concerted effort to focus on the primary causes of cancer in the first place.