Monday, October 18, 2004

Breast Cancer in the News: A RANT

Just reading the words "breast cancer" strikes a fear in many women, if not most. Here is a disease that will not only kill us if it can, it will also assault our very femininity, strike us where we are at our most vulnerable, punish us for the mere fact of being women. And what are the defenses that we can use to combat this terrible scourge? Vigilance, vigilance and vigilance. We must vigilantly probe our breasts every month, memorize each individual shape we find there and keep a mental record of any change in them. After a certain age we must vigilantly seek mammographs which produce, after a varying amount of discomfort and pain, pictures resembling snowfalls and subject to all sorts of interpretation problems. And should we find a lump we must be vigilant in getting it biopsied and studied. All this before it is too late. For early detection is the only real defense against this misogynistic killer.

No wonder that some women have elected to have bilateral mastectomy just to avoid all this fear and vigilance. It almost seems sane. What else could we do to protect our breasts against a future cancerous growth?

Researchers have some ideas about this. I have read the following as possible causes of breast cancer, hence on the list of things to be avoided:
-family members with breast cancer
-animal fats in diet
-having children later
-having few children
-having no children
-not breastfeeding your children
-herbicides and pesticides
-drycleaning chemicals
-early onset of menarche
-late onset of menopause

Now new research adds to this list at least the following 'causes':
-high weight at birth
-a growth spurt during the time when breasts develop
-being tall and thin as a teenager

I think that my point is becoming obvious: Women are fed the fear of breast cancer in all sorts of different ways, and this feeding doesn't really make sense. Yes, breast cancer is a serious and frightening disease. But it's not the most serious disease that women face. In 2001, twelve women died of heart disease for each woman who died of breast cancer. In the same year, three women died of cancers of lung, bronchus or trachea for every two women who died of breast cancer. In fact, the number of women who died of influenza and pneumonia was three fourths as high as the number who died of breast cancer. Only fifteen percent of all cancer deaths among women were from breast cancer, eighty-five percent died from other types of cancers. Yet we don't see the same sort of media news or campaigns about lung cancer, for example, though more women are dying from it every year.

Breast cancer shouldn't be ignored, but it should be relegated to its proper place: as one of many types of cancers that exist and as a cause of death far less significant than heart disease. Any one woman randomly drawn among Americans is more likely to die of a heart attack than breast cancer, yet we are not seeing the same campaign against heart disease in women.

Breast cancer shouldn't be ignored, but it should be relegated to its proper place: as one of many diseases whose etiology is still poorly known. Making up long lists of possible causes may be helpful in some cases, but not when practically everything women do may turn up to be one of these 'causes'. If you were not a plump baby, you probably were a skinny and tall teenager or you had an early menarche or something.

What is truly frightening to me about these most recent research projects is that at least one of the researchers in fact advocates combating future breast cancer by seeing what could be done to change teenage growth spurts! You might as well advocate that women should have many, many children very early just so that their breast cancer risks will be minimized. Never mind if they are ready for these children, if they have found a suitable father for them and if they can support all these children. (And never mind that having many children early in life may increase the risk of cervical cancer.) This turns the concepts upside down: instead of using medical care to support our lives we are expected to interfere with these lives just so that we can avoid future medical care of a particular type. And in the meantime we are quite likely to succumb to a heart attack.