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Cancer and the Color Wars: Pink? Teal? Purple?

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The late summer teal dusk of September is leaving us. You did know that September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and that teal is the ribbon color, didn't you? And of course you saw the woman with Teal Toes.

Oh I guess not, since she's in Chicago, and you're in Cincinnati.

But you must have seen the teal fountains around town. They're everywhere! Why, entire cities have colored their oceanfronts teal in honor of ovarian cancer survivors.

Coastal cities aside, teal has a long way to go to catch up with pink. It's almost October, aka "pink nausea" in some circles. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the color, in case you just arrived here on planet Earth, of the ribbon for breast cancer is pink. And boy do we have a lot of pink. We've even got pink garbage cans.

The corporate "community" has latched on to ribbons and colors, but most are contributing virtually nothing to the health of our citizens or charities that raise funds for research to combat these diseases.

Some 40 years ago, you could argue that awareness of breast cancer was needed. But today, with all the pink, tight-fitting "Save 2nd Base" t-shirts I wonder if advocates have overdone it. Or rather, sexualized the topic of breast cancer beyond a point that is helpful.

Blogger Melinda Tankard Reist poses the question: Saving Boobies or Saving Women? "I do have an issue with the kind of language used in these campaigns because it emphasizes the sexual desirability of breasts, especially as objects for male sexual gratification – and not a woman's health and well being."

I can't speak for breast cancer survivors, but as a survivor of ovarian cancer, I can say that it took me a long time to feel human again, never mind womanly. I don't think I would have taken kindly to cancer campaigns emphasizing a flat, beautiful belly.

In 2007 the United States had about 22,430 new cases of ovarian cancer, and roughly 15,280 deaths from ovarian cancer. That there is some ugly math. Let me put it another way: One out of 71 women in the United States will get ovarian cancer, and two out of three of them will die of it.

How much research is done has a lot to do with those grim numbers. Per death, the National Cancer Institute spends $6,224 on ovarian cancer. AIDS, meanwhile, gets $14,914 per death. Breast cancer only slightly less, at $14,292. Poor old pancreatic tumors pull up near the bottom at $2,224. Only bladder, esophageal, lung and stomach get less money for cancer research.

The efforts pay off. Let's look at average life span after diagnosis. Since 1993, the life span for AIDS patients has tripled to 24 years. Not 24 years old, mind you. Twenty-four years after diagnosis with HIV/AIDS.

With breast cancer, survival is highly dependent on stage and type, but overall, there will be, in one year in the United States, 200,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths. Many women survive with treatment to be cancer-free with no recurrences. Some of that medical progress does come from awareness campaigns, I admit, but please Think Before You Pink. How much of the price you pay goes to a charity? And what does that charity actually do to help women with breast cancer?

The treatment options for other cancers are less optimistic. Ovarian cancer? After diagnosis, only 45 percent of patients will live more than five years. Pancreatic? Less than five percent will live five years.

Think about that for a minute. Prostate cancer will prove fatal for 12 percent of patients, breast cancer for 23 percent, ovarian 68 percent, and pancreatic 90 percent. Beginning to get the picture?

Why does pancreatic cancer, which is three times as common as cervical cancer and is three times as fatal, get less money for research? It all boils down to "awareness," which could be viewed as a polite term for cold, hard cash. What we have here is a disparity in cancer research funding.

According to CBS: "Cancer is on the decline in this country . . . But those declines are concentrated among the cancers that receive the most research funding, while some of the fastest growing cancers are getting little publicity or funding."

The 28-year-old patient in the CBS story looks like a strapping young Marine, but the man has esophageal cancer, the same disease now afflicting author Christopher Hitchens. The survival odds for esophageal cancer are not good.

One reason for the disparity in funding is that the deadlier cancers don't leave enough survivors to pick up the flag and carry on the fight. And loved ones may or may not have the strength to carry on in their absence.

I've written about Marnie Rose. She was 28 years old when she died of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer that has an average survival time of three months. With treatment, patients might be able to stretch that three months to one or two years. I've also written about my friend Christie Buckner, who fought ovarian cancer for nine years, but finally died at the age of 39.

Please watch this short video on the late Randy Pausch and ask yourself if you are really OK spending seven times as much on curing some cancers as on the one that killed him. Pancreatic cancer strikes over 37,000 Americans a year, so it's not as rare as we'd like to believe.

Randy Pausch never smoked or drank heavily. He was fit. He had no risk factors for pancreatic cancer. But he got it anyway. He almost made it to two years. He died in 2008 at the age of 47.

By the way, November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and the color is purple. Just sayin'...

I understand the appeal of denial. I was once a woman who'd never had cancer. I was one of what a friend calls the "smug well." Denial comes to us quite naturally. You decide that the people who get cancer have bad genes, or they frequent smoky bars, or they live on toxic dumps, or they pepper their conversations with swear words, or they're mean to animals. If you want to keep it simple, you decide they just did not deserve good health, period.

You, in contrast, deserve good health because you're this, you're that and you never did this other thing. Then you cross your fingers and hope that someday you don't get that ominous phone call, that look, those words: You have cancer. And -- so sorry -- your type of cancer is especially difficult to treat.

You will go from smug well to terrified sick in nothing flat. I guarantee it.

Follow Donna Trussell on Twitter.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Medicine

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Thank you for writing this. As someone who is dealing with a pituitary tumor that has hurt every system in my body (yet it's called benign because they have no classification system because no one has studied them enough and they don't know if it will spread), has beaten Cushing's Disease (caused by said tumor), and had their adrenal glands removed (also because of said tumor), I really resent all the attention that's paid to breast cancer. Try living with a disease with NO FUNDING, NO RESEARCH, NO HOPE! To beat one deadly disease, I had to be GIVEN another one that will be with me as long as I live. Bet none of you have even heard of Cushing's much less know that April 8th is Cushing's Awareness DAY (we don't even get a month). I am tired of having pink shoved in my face as if it's the only disease people die from. I refuse to buy anything pink during the month of October and I do not support any business that asks me to donate to breast cancer research or forces pink crap on me until they start selling gray, teal, brown, white, blue/yellow, multi-colored puzzle piece, purple, lavendar, etc. stuff all year round and donating to other charities.

October 03 2010 at 6:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to losadchuk's comment

I agree.

October 05 2010 at 9:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My husband developed breast cancer and found that men get breast cancer also. The pink ribbon should be shaded in blue or purple to reflect both sexes.

October 02 2010 at 1:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My 15 year old daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma last March. Her color is purple. Everywhere we go we see pink. We have several friends who are breast cancer survivors so we are obviously very happy for the research and advances that have been made for them BUT try explaining that to a teenager on chemo and steriods. Not every cancer is breast cancer. Awareness has to be raised on every kind of cancer not just the popular ones.

September 29 2010 at 3:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You didn't even mention the children. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Here are a few facts for you: Childhood cancer is the #1 killer disease of our kids before age 20; killing more kids every year than cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma and AIDS combined. Childhood cancer is 2nd only to accidents as a cause of death for our children. Childhood cancer is diagnosed in 1 of 300 children before the age of 20. Childhood cancer is diagnosed in nearly 15,000 children every year. Childhood cancer kills nearly 3,000 children every year. Over 40,000 kids are being treated for childhood cancer every day. Childhood cancer actually includes 12 major groups and numerous sub-groups of cancer types (e.g., brain, blood and central nervous system cancers). The average 5-year survivorship rate (78%) for all types of childhood cancer has been level for years; with some types of childhood cancer still extremely challenging to treat. The 350,000 survivors of childhood cancer today face a 2/3 chance of developing long-term health effects from treatments, including; secondary cancers, major organ problems, fertility issues, and development issues. Childhood cancers are not scaled down version of adult cancers, they are different types of cancers and require specialized research. Childhood cancer research is woefully underfunded compared to adult cancers, with shockingly low funding levels from the American Cancer Society (less than $0.01 per $1 public support) and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (less than $0.05 per $1 public support), and less than 4% of funds from the National Cancer Institute directed to all services associated with childhood cancer. Although the pharmaceutical industry invests more money in research than the National Institutes of Health, this investment historically has all but excluded childhood cancer research; it's just not profitable.

September 29 2010 at 12:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank you, Donna, for another brilliant expose of the cancer industry. I noticed that pink had already appeared - seemingly everywhere - and it's still September. TEAL, folks, TEAL is the color for September!!! And there are so many questions about whether the money spent on... pink [brand name] mixers? pink garbage cans?... yogurt?... goes to help research or is just a great marketing move to get the companies' names out there. Cancer needs serious research. We need serious health care coverage and concern in this country.

September 29 2010 at 8:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to thinker25's comment

Gold! Gold is the color for September! Childhood Cancer Awareness month. I know people don't like to think about it, but there are many kids suffering, yet so little awareness. Hard to think about, but we must.

September 29 2010 at 12:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Debbie Penland !

I have lost so many family members to different cancers it truly makes me feel "sick" when people "expect me" to "pick a color"! I have had people treat me as if I had slapped them because I won't "join t-h-e-i-r color-causes"...even when I tell them "they truly have no idea until they l-i-v-e the experiences of lives f-i-l-l-e-d with the horrors of dealing with one of the most devastating diagnoses a human being can receive! There should be only "ONE COLOR" and the fight should be "UNIVERSAL"..."CANCER knows no boundaries"!!!

September 29 2010 at 3:07 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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