Sceptics’ Cancer Awareness Month April 2011 - more details

If it comes off, this will be the first Sceptics’ Cancer Awareness Month. SCAM is a chance to look at the underside of our current dot-to-dot cancer rhetoric. I hope it promotes objective debate, discussion and dissent.

It won’t, of course.
 
If it is noticed, it may just promote immoderate personal abuse and I’ll be wilfully misunderstood as a psychopathic misanthrope. Actually, I'm hoping to sow the seeds of a more nuanced inclusive account of cancer, for all the men and women at risk or who get it. Of course there's room for the ones who already commonly feature. But are we doing it right? Should we expect, for example, an improvement for all women with cancer, as a result of the effective advocacy for women with breast cancer? If not, why not? Are we paying too much attenton to some cancers and some sufferers and not enough to others? Have we let sentimentality replace fairness?
 
I suppose most of us must be comfortable with the way cancer awareness is currently framed, otherwise we’d have changed it already. But I’ll give it a jolt and see what happens.
 
Awareness raising is useful in providing an outlet for people with cancer, and those who love them, to work through their experience but it’s not that useful to the supposed audience - people who do not yet have cancer and may never get it. If you want to be ‘aware’ of the top ten cancers most likely to affect you, adults have to learn and recall c. 80 symptoms and match them to the right cancer, in a timely, empowered and assertive manner. Under the current conventions of cancer awareness that’s the supposed end result of taking the all key facts from Cancer Awareness Months and following them to their logical conclusion for the top ten most common cancers.
 
Cancer Awareness Months promote a skewed, partial and inaccurate picture of cancer that serve no one particularly well, except fundraising in select site specific cancer charities. They are used to translate (badly) the specific and personal experience of people diagnosed with particular cancers into something supposedly informative for entire populations of people, without cancer. 
 
SCAM is a counterpoint to all that.
 
SCAM is a space to investigate cancer awareness, free of the usual tired rhetoric and the burburling of site specific cancer charities. How effective are the usual awareness months? Why is the innocence of cancer 'victims' so pervasive an idea and does it damage certain people with certain cancers? Why are women (and men) keen to support women with breast cancer but are not, apparently, so bothered about women with bowel or lung cancers? Ditto men and women and their relationship to prostate cancer as a cause. Men have no idea they are more likely to get stomach or lip cancer, or ten other cancers, than they are to get testicular cancer. It is not a triumph of site specific Awareness Months if men can only spot 'men specific' messages and have no grip on the relative risk across all cancers.
 
Why is there no bladder cancer awareness month? How is cancer research spend influenced by cancer awareness? Who are the PR winners and losers in cancer awareness?
 
SCAM is a space for the independent health press to ask their own questions about cancer, free from corporate messages from the cancer charity sector - like ‘Is cancer awarenss health promotion or really brand promotion?'
 
What happens if you ask charity staff at, for example, a prostate cancer organisation about bowel cancer, or a lung cancer one about oesophagus cancer? How ‘aware’ would they be of the key facts about the unfamiliar cancer, the one they don't work with? What should it mean to single site cancer charities if their own staff, who are other cancer charities’ public, don’t see, absorb, understand or recall accurately the standard cancer awareness messages for other tumours?
 
I am deeply sceptical about the current cancer narrative. The majority of men and women with cancer have non gender-specific ones, like lung or bowel and also rarer cancers (which are about half of all cancers diagnosed) so the concentration on gender specific ones to the exclusion of the rest is not good for men, or women. Neither is it good for men and women over 70 who are most likely to get cancer and are least likely to feature in high profile Cancer Awareness Month campaigns.
 
As with size zero we’ve fetishised a ‘look’ for cancer that bears no relation to the reality where cancer is a disease of ageing. The archetype cancer - of the breast - is the big one in awareness because sex sells and ‘younger’ sells best.
 
SCAM is journalists’ and bloggers’ chance to investigate an alternative to standard cancer awareness fare. Compare cancer with heart disease or dementia, for instance. Other conditions you could get are never mentioned in most Cancer Awareness Months as they are rival causes. So much for balance in informng the public or helping them keep a sense of proportion.
 
Do something different and interesting in cancer awareness. Help make SCAM the Awareness Month that points out that 96% of UK women will not die of breast cancer and that twice as many UK men die of stroke as die of prostate cancer.
 
Then, having lit the blue touch paper, stand WELL back.  
 
Other stuff on SCAM here