Friday, October 15, 2010

Reading Between the Lines of Breast Cancer Awareness

Have you ever heard of Project Censored? The group does a terrific job of writing about under reported stories. They are a favorite among investigative journalists and other media savvy people. Well, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (or Breast Health Month, depending on who you ask) and two things crossed my desk this week that could fall under the category of "Under reported Breast Cancer Stories."

One is that Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women; they also get diagnosed in later stages of the disease. Now, I knew that already, but what is new here is a study which concludes this is happening clearly because of race, not because of other factors - like, say, not having enough medical insurance.

Women's e-News just reported that: "Researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. say they were surprised to find that among women with health insurance, African American and Hispanic women experienced greater delays in diagnosing breast cancer than Caucasian women. The number of days from abnormal screening to definitive diagnosis for those with private insurance was 15.9 days for white women, 27.1 days for black women and 54.1 days for Hispanic women."

The same week I was reading about this, I had the opportunity to speak with Gayle A. Sulik, author of the new book Pink Ribbon Blues, How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. Sulik, a medical sociologist, argues that while "pink ribbon culture" has brought a lot of attention to and advocacy around breast cancer -- guess what? It hasn't actually improved women's health.

The book has been getting rave reviews and Sulik has been everywhere this month, including the New York Times and Oprah Radio. Sandra Steingraber, the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, said in her review that the book "takes us behind the pink curtain to a peculiar culture where sentimentality takes the place of scientific evidence, personal transcendence fills in for political action, and lofty platitudes replace actionable goals. Pink Ribbon Blues is the Frommer's travel guide to the country of breast cancer."

Columnist Janet Marshall from the Fredericksburg News in Virginia summed it up well I thought, when she said: "If you want my attention, talk to me about scientific breakthroughs and research roadblocks. Talk to me about treatments and trends. Talk to me about people and pain and progress. But don’t give me a ribbon, tell me it represents a disease and expect me to immediately print a story/make a donation/see the light. It feels blasphemous admitting that, but I know I’m not alone."

I am so glad these women are speaking out. I feel the same way. I don't want to suck on a pink Tic Tac in October. I want my friends to remember to get their PAP tests done, schedule their mammograms and take care of themselves. I don't want to buy pink socks or eat yogurt in a pink cup. I want to live in a country where everyone has equal access to medical care and the color of your skin doesn't have a lot to do with what your medical outcome, when you will be diagnosed, or how you will be treated. I'd like us to have an honest discussion about why cancer rates everywhere (and for lots of different kinds of cancer) are on the increase.

I am as opposed to pink washing as I am to green washing. With all this washing the United States should be clean as a whistle. It's not.