by Barbara A. Brenner
Former Executive Director, Breast Cancer Action (article appeared in the October 1995 issue of The Source)
It’s October again: “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” with its pink ribbons, television programs about cheery women surviving breast cancer, and the American Cancer Society’s call for mammograms as “your best protection” against the disease. As I talk to people about breast cancer, I am impressed and appalled at the success of the campaign to portray breast cancer as a disease that can be “cured,” so long as it is detected “early” by mammography.
But breast cancer is not a mere inconvenience, a brief detour on the road to healthy longevity, so long as you get your annual mammogram. And the promoters of Breast Cancer Awareness Month know this far better than the general public that is the target of the annual October campaign. The human and financial cost of breast cancer is monstrous: 44 percent of the thousands of women diagnosed this year will be dead 15 years from now. Yet, sponsors of Breast Cancer Awareness Month such as the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and Zeneca—the sole corporate sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month—would have us believe that a simple annual mammogram will protect women.
By focusing public attention on “early detection” and “cure,” the sponsors of Breast Cancer Awareness Month divert attention from critical issues that the breast cancer epidemic raises:
Why are the available treatments so toxic and ineffective for so many women? Could it be that the ACS, which for years held a portion of the patent on 5-fluorouracil (5-FU),1 one of the chemotherapy agents frequently used to treat breast cancer, has a vested interest in ignoring this question?
Why has the incidence and risk of breast cancer risen so sharply in the past 30 years, despite the National Cancer Institute’s “War on Cancer”? Could it be that the nature and structure of government funding for scientific research make it unlikely that innovative research, including research into primary prevention, will ever be funded?
What is the connection between environmental toxins and breast cancer? Could it be that Zeneca—maker of Tamoxifen, a major producer of chlorine and petroleum-based products, and the final arbiter of the text of Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s promotional materials—has its own corporate interests in mind when it refuses to allow the word “carcinogen” to appear in any of these materials?2
The impact of corporate interests on society’s response to the breast cancer epidemic recently echoed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. With Breast Cancer Awareness Month upon us, the story bears telling.
On August 18, 1995, the San Francisco Health Department issued the long-awaited results of a study of cancer incidence in the Bayview-Hunters Point District, an area of the city that is home to most of the city’s remaining industry, and where most of the residents are African Americans. The study revealed that the incidence of breast cancer for African-American women under 50 in Bayview-Hunters Point is twice as high as the incidence for African-American women elsewhere in the city. For all women in the Bayview-Hunters Point District, the breast cancer rate is higher than that for white women in the Bay Area, who have the highest reported rate in the world. Acknowledging that the reason for the high rate remains a puzzle, and that the study was not designed to determine whether environmental exposure played any role in the incidence, the principal investigator on the study discounted the likelihood that environmental factors were the cause.
A local energy company has applied to build a new power plant in the Bayview-Hunters Point district. Area residents alarmed by the health department study appropriately point out that too little is known about the connection between environmental factors and breast cancer, and called on the city to impose a moratorium on new industrial plants in the area until the high cancer rates are investigated. These residents are invoking a classic public health approach in which policy decisions are based on the weight of the evidence. Yet the San Francisco Health Department representative said that he could not recommend a moratorium “based on the evidence.”3 Clearly, only intense public pressure will force the city to take seriously its responsibility for the public’s health, particularly in the face of corporate interests that generate economic benefits.
It is equally clear that only a truly informed public, one that understands that preventing and curing breast cancer requires more than pink ribbons and annual mammograms, will be able to confront and end this epidemic.
1 Batt, S. Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer, Gynergy Books, 1994, p. 247.
2 Paulsen, M.,“The Politics of Cancer,” Utne Reader, Nov./Dec. 1993.
3 “High Cancer Rates in Bayview Women,” San Francisco Examiner, p. 1, 8/18/1995.