Is the high profile of breast cancer really a good thing for women?

As I do doubt that the high profile of breast cancer is an unquestionably good thing for women I should get my retaliation in first, with a clear statement of my attitude to breast cancer. It is right that breast cancer is a high profile health issue and women need to be well informed about it. I am certain that women should be assisted to assess their risks of getting it and, if they can, act to reduce them. They also need to understand the risks and benefits of screening and to be breast aware.

But women’s special relationship with breast cancer is out of balance. If we are broadly in favour of supporting women of any age and their health, breast awareness is far from being the complete story of women’s health. 
 
Breasts have a mighty PR advantage. Practically everyone likes, looks at and understands them. They help confer breast cancer with spurious significance as the stereotype women’s cancer. This shorthand has the effect of sidelining not only the other cancers that women get, where their gender is neither here nor there, but also many other health problems. When these other conditions are common, or amenable to behaviour change, and some are, this means that health awareness, health service delivery and research funding for other issues facing women get drowned out.
 
In the UK every year around 42,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. So the good news is that many women are breast cancer survivors. Cancer Research UK estimates the prevalence - the number of women who have received a diagnosis of breast cancer sometime in the past and are still alive in the UK today - is approximately 500,000. This is a mass of lobbying capacity. This is excellent but are the effects for all women wholly positive?
 
The prevalence of women survivors of lung cancer is tiny in comparison. Survival is so poor there are few women around to clamour, and clamour continuously for improvements in care, treatment and support. The advantages in research, health service delivery and health promotion that have accrued for women through lobbying on breast cancer have not helped other women with other health issues.
 
Cancer can develop at any age, but it is mostly a disease of increasing age. This is true of breast cancer, but asked to think about a woman with breast cancer your mind’s eye is quite likely to conjure up a young or youngish women. Eight out of ten cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women over 50, but the two out of ten under 50 are hugely influential in coverage, messaging and awareness. Indeed, they are so influential that older women wrongly assume they are not at particular and increasing risk of breast cancer. So there’s a problem in the high profile of breast cancer right there. Use fashion to target breast cancer and you’ve already marginalised one vital section of the population. Mainstream fashion isn’t at ease with older women.  
 
In the UK in 2007, 299,351 women died, 12,000 of those women from breast cancer. So 4% of women died from breast cancer, which means 96% of women died from somethig else. Cancer caused the deaths of 76,477 women. So 84% of women who died from cancer died from cancers that weren't breast. For each of the last ten years lung cancer has killed more women annually than breast cancer. Clearly breast cancer is an issue; 12,000 deaths are neither a minor nor a solved problem. But it is time to examine where breast cancer fits into women’s consciousness of all health issues facing them, to ensure that premature deaths of women with other conditions are getting the resources in research and service delivery that they need.
 
In England and Wales in 2007, when 10,640 women died of breast cancer 13,589 women died of a heart attack; 10,676 women died of dementia; and at least 25,000 women died of stroke. 11,386 women died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, but few in the lay public have ever even heard of COPD. Breast cancer was the seventh leading cause of death for women in England and Wales – behind lung cancer, dementia, stroke and heart attack, amongst others.
 
Breast cancer obscures too many other women and their lives. Glamorous celebrity led campaigns and youth obsession make a persuasive media cocktail. What about the stories and awareness messaging from other women whose lives don’t hit the media as often, if ever, because they cannot be made to look conventionally attractive, sexy and most crucially, young? Respiratory disease can mean breathlessness, wheezing, gasping, immobility and too little breath to speak. Dementia and heart disease are not a good look either and none of them muster many women survivors on Fun Runs. Women on that roll call of female Armageddon stay indoors, out of sight, out of our papers, magazines and minds.

So, do I believe the high profile of breast cancer is a good thing for all women? I think the profile is validating and affirming for women with breast cancer and those close to them, but for the rest? No. I used to, but now it’s caveats all the way.