By Louise Sukle
In 1974, when First Lady Betty Ford went public with her breast cancer diagnosis, it was historic for the time. Breast cancer was a hush-hush subject in the 70s. Ford was not the first famous woman to tell her story but as the sitting president’s wife, she felt the public had a right to know. As a result, newspapers across the country described Ford’s radical mastectomy in great detail.
Eleven years later, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was conceived with the aim to promote preventative screening through mammography.
The pink ribbons that adorn everything from socks to sodas are a measure of the success of the breast cancer activism of the 90s. There is hardly a community in the nation that has not participated in some kind of fund-raising or consciousness-raising breast cancer event.
When a woman makes decisions regarding her diagnosis today she is influenced, consciously or not, by millions of other women. Breast cancer is no longer an individual disease. It has become a collective experience.
Breast cancer has been successfully transformed from a hushed disease to one that the vast majority of women in America will be tested for in their lifetime. It is hard to imagine breast cancer as a disease of which we need to be more aware.
So what’s next?
According to an article in Time magazine, those at the forefront of breast cancer treatment are calling for a fundamental shift in the way doctors talk about and treat the disease.
Evidence is mounting that aggressive treatments, intended to save women’s lives, can have unexpected and sometimes dire consequences. That collateral damage is getting harder to justify, making the difficult conversations between a woman and her oncologist even harder.
New data suggests there may be better ways to treat some breast cancers, particularly those at the early stages. Radiation doesn’t always improve survival and there is a cancer risk that can come with too much of it. Chemotherapy is very effective in treating breast cancer but it is not without side effects and in some cases, it may be unnecessary. The research, which is part of a growing body of evidence, shows that a genetic test could determine your risk of not including chemotherapy in cancer treatment.
With cancer treatment, the burden of proof is greater for not doing something than it is for doing it. When doctors deviate from what’s widely accepted as the standard of care, they can face resistance and even malpractice.
All of us; those who fear the disease and those who live with it, wish there could be one universal solution to eradicating breast cancer - or any cancer - but of course it’s more complicated than that. Researchers around the world are working to find better ways to prevent, detect, and treat breast cancer, and to improve the quality of life of patients and survivors.
Wearing a ribbon, sporting a bracelet, running a marathon or buying a pink t-shirt expresses our hopes, and that’s good. But making a difference is more complicated than that. It may be less a matter of spending more money than allocating it more wisely.