Breast cancer research, overfunded and overexposed

October 13, 2011

This Monday, I sat in a hospital waiting room, anticipating news of my mother’s condition. Her breast-cancer surgery was supposed to take five to seven hours, but the surgery was approaching hour eight. Luckily, we found out that the extra time was due to a delay, not a complication. She asked to see my sister and me only a few minutes after she woke up from the anesthesia.

Her face was weary and wet. She hardly opened her eyes, though her hair, unaffected by the surgery, was familiar.

Still inquisitive, she made sure our dog Buddy was taken care of and that I had finished my history paper. When told how well she was doing, she responded, “How am I doing well? All I’m doing is sitting here!” which is true. I think we sometimes have a tendency to talk down to the sick.

Nevertheless, she was sick, and she’ll have more surgeries in the coming weeks. Worse, though, for the coming years, she will have to live in fear of the breast cancer recurring. But for now she is focused on the ice chips that the nurses allow her and the morphine drip in her IV.

I squeezed her hand goodbye, needing to make my flight back to Washington. I looked in the gift shop—nearly every item was bright pink or emblazoned with that ubiquitous ribbon. On the flight, too, special pink lemonade was offered with some percentage going toward the Komen Foundation, which supports breast cancer research. It happened to be Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Still, it doesn’t seem fair that a single type of cancer—breast cancer—should receive as much attention, research funding, and support as it does, when millions of people suffer from less prominent (but equally deadly) types of cancer. Last year alone, the Komen Foundation issued $300 million in research grants; in its 18 years, the Prostate Cancer Foundation—a cancer 10 percent more common than breast cancer—has raised only $450 million. Admittedly, prostate cancer is less deadly, but the question remains: is this the fairest way to divide up resources?

According to the New York Times, in 2006 the National Cancer Institute awarded the most money per death to breast cancer, at $13,452. It is ahead of prostate ($11,298), colon ($4,566), pancreatic ($2,297), and lung cancer ($1,630). Pancreatic cancer, sadly, is among the deadliest cancers. Its combined 5-year survival rate is 6 percent, compared with 89 percent for breast cancer (according to The American Cancer Society).

Even outside cancer, epilepsy is as prevalent and kills as many people as breast cancer does. Fifty thousand Americans a year die from epilepsy and accidents stemming from it, but Yoplait never sells yogurt with purple lids. KFC doesn’t offer purple epilepsy-research baskets. Delta Airlines does not offer special grape drinks for epilepsy. We think of cancer patients (except formerly-smoking lung cancer patients) as being blameless, the disease as cruel and random. Epilepsy has a sort of stigma, though. Logically, we know it’s random and the disease isn’t the victim’s fault. But as with all mental illness, somehow it seems like it’s not the same.

Even though my mom has been affected by breast cancer, I see no reason why other diseases are so overlooked. My mom could have just as easily developed ovarian cancer or pancreatic cancer. In such a case, why would there be no walks in her benefit? No media campaigns, no special lemonade, no t-shirts.

I understand that all the donations that the Komen Foundation receives are theirs, but plastering the corporate world in pink has its own consequences. Watching a baseball game and seeing a pink hat, walking around the city and seeing people walking for the cure gives the false impression that the fight against breast cancer is quickly progressing, which is not the case. The focus on fundraising also detracts from the preventative nature of the fight against breast cancer. The corporate sponsorship gives the wrong impression, making people think, “Oh, if only those researchers had more money, then breast cancer could be cured.”

Then again, it’s hard to say that breast cancer research is too well funded. It would be fallacious to say that if the breast cancer campaign were less successful, then other diseases would have more money to fundraise. Philanthropy is obviously not a zero-sum game. Still, funding should be allocated along more equitable lines. A life lost to epilepsy is no different than a life lost to breast cancer.

Equity in funding does not matter to my mother. Over the next weeks, she’ll go through several more preventative and cosmetic surgeries, none of which I’ll be able to see her for. I thoroughly expect her to donate money to breast cancer research. After all, surely some advance made from breast cancer research in the past 30 years aided her today. But those personally unaffected by cancer ought to be more aware of what we give our money to. Just because the world is plastered in pink this month does not mean that there aren’t other deserving causes.

Connor Jones
Connor Jones is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. Before that, he edited its blog, Vox Populi and the features section. He was a double major in mathematics and economics and is from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at cjones@georgetownvoice.com.

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I applaud your effort to draw attention to the discrepancy between breast cancer, which has a high level of visibility other, less advertised, conditions, but did want to correct one piece of misinformation.

People commonly confuse epilepsy, as you did, with mental illness. It actually results from brain damage resulting in ictal spikes, or abnormal discharges, known as seizures. The post-ictal phase in a partial or partial-complex seizure can temporarily affect behavior — and even be misdiagnosed as a mental health condition, but that only makes a differential diagnosis more critical.

Complicating the confusion, many drugs initially approved by the FDA proved more effective for either migraine (which is on the same vector as epilepsy) or bi-polar disorder (which is not). Ironically, many of us who have epilepsy found that these extremely useful drugs weren’t particularly good at managing seizures!

Thank you again for drawing attention to the discrepancies in profit-driven funding and contributing to epilepsy awareness. I sincerely hope that you mother responded well to her treatment.

Julia Lloyd-George