With the advent of autumn, thousands of Americans will participate in a ritual that has remained unremitting and unsuccessful for more than two decades. From pink-themed races to pink doughnut glazes, activities abound to heighten breast cancer awareness and encourage early detection.
Perhaps this season you’ve planned to run for the cure or host a neighborhood bake sale. Before lacing those running shoes or spraying that muffin tin, take a moment to consider what the tsunami of pinkness has accomplished since National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was launched in 1985.
Have survival rates improved? Are treatments less toxic? Are fewer people diagnosed? The answer is "no" to each of these success factors.
The story of breast cancer resonates with failure. Mortality rates remain flat: In 1988 approximately 40,000 women perished annually from breast cancer, and 2013 projections predict that 39,620 women and 410 men will succumb.
Today’s treatments of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy were initiated decades ago and remain only partly effective. Moreover, the price these treatments exact in terms of physical and emotional devastation remains as high today as in the 1980s.
This year 232,340 cases of breast cancer will be discovered. Even being "early stage" provides no reassurance because the disease will eventually spread ("metastasize") to other parts of the body in 30 percent of these patients.
The fatality rate of metastatic breast cancer is 97 percent, and survival after metastasis averages three years, with no significant improvement in more than 20 years. The mantra that "early stage breast cancer is curable" applies to only 2 of every 3 people diagnosed, which are not commendable odds.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation, a major funding recipient, must be held accountable in part for the lack of progress. In 1991, Komen began distributing pink ribbons at its races and has become famous for its "For the Cure" motto. However, Komen’s expenditures fall woefully short of facilitating a cure.
In 2012, Komen’s allocation to research was only 18 percent while it showered its founder/CEO, Nancy Brinker, with nearly $685,000 in salary and benefits. Hence finding a cure has not been Komen’s top priority despite its eye-catching slogan.
The time has come for Komen to place its money where its motto is.
Another challenge is that the results of cancer research, including clinical trials, are not always shared or published, which leads to reinvention and fiduciary waste.
Finally, the fact remains that cancer is a perplexing disease. For example, the genes within a breast tumor may vary, making it challenging for therapy to be effective against the entire malignancy.
Therefore, a successful attack against breast cancer must encompass: preventing it altogether, stopping early-stage breast cancer from metastasizing, effectively treating patients with metastatic cancer, and publishing research findings.
The encouraging news is that each of us is positioned to help influence the battle against breast cancer by:
• Contributing to cancer research organizations such as Stand Up To Cancer, which allocates 100 percent of public funds to support multidisciplinary groups of scientists who work collaboratively to develop new cancer treatments quickly
• Supporting METAvivor, the only U.S. non-profit organization that awards 100 percent of donated funds towards research grants exclusively for metastatic breast cancer
• Participating in Dr. Susan Love’s Research Foundation programs to identify what precipitates the disease and how to prevent it.
The rose-colored battle against breast cancer — with emphasis on awareness and early detection — has been embedded upon a canvas of failure. By admitting past mistakes and spearheading constructive changes, we possess the ability to reshape its future.
The brush is in our hands: Now is the time to repaint the pink.
Anne Loeser, of Salt Lake City, is a retired software project manager who developed metastatic breast cancer 18 years after being diagnosed with "early stage" disease.
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