Are all cancers equal?

Sunday was Mother’s Day. Finding a card meant the usual struggle through a sea of pink cards but I did manage to find something that suitably conveys how proud I am of her – and how lucky I feel to still have her.

Two years ago my mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, following a long battle with her GP to recognise her symptoms and refer her for further investigation. She’s still surviving but the cancer has now taken up root in her lungs and so the battle continues.

Lung cancer has a survival rate of only about 5% and kills more men and women each year than any other cancer. Of the other ‘big four’, colorectal cancer is third most commonly diagnosed, prostate cancer is a major cause of death in men and breast cancer completes the list, with around 45,000 women being diagnosed each year.

As a woman, I’m pleased that information and advice about breast cancer is all around us, in the news, in soaps, magazines and so on. October is breast cancer awareness month but all year round there are various charity events, fun runs, moonlight walks and the ubiquitous pink ribbon. This is undoubtedly a good thing – breast cancer kills around 12,000 women each year in this country so no one would question the need to raise awareness of the disease and fund research into a cure.

What I do question is whether this sometimes comes at the expense of other equally dangerous cancers (and indeed other illnesses). Whether research and media coverage has become hyperfocused on the cancer with the most marketability, the cancer that attacks that part of our bodies that the media attaches far more value to than our other body parts – while other cancers receive less funding and far less attention.

The fight to raise awareness of breast cancer was a feminist triumph. Women’s illnesses don’t always receive the attention and research funds that they should but now more research spending goes on breast cancer than any other cancers. This has contributed to the survival rate for breast cancer increasing over the last 40 years, with four out of every five women now surviving the disease.

But did we sell out somewhere along the line? To me it feels rather like breast cancer has become a brand, one that’s marketed in pink (much like Mother’s Day). Companies push their specially branded pink products at us and we buy them to show that we care for our sisters and mothers, without any real knowledge of where the profits go or whether they might actually be contributing to the disease in the first place (see The Problem with Pink). On Facebook we feel compelled to join in with various games like posting our bra colour or where we put our handbag, all under the guise of raising awareness (really? I agree with Lorrie Hearts’ take on this).

But given that lung cancer now kills nearly as many women as men, and more women than breast cancer, shouldn’t we be focusing a bit more on stopping girls from smoking? And shouldn’t we encourage women (and doctors) to be just as concerned about blood in our faeces as we are about lumps in our breasts?

Meanwhile, while others proudly display their pink ribbons around town, I don’t have the option to buy a brown ribbon to raise awareness of colorectal cancer and my mum feels like her cancer, and her fight, is just slightly in the shadow of others.

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