Members of the Amsterdam Fire Department are wearing pink T-shirts during the month of October. The White House is bathed in pink light all month.
And you cannot turn on the television or open this or any newspaper or magazine this month without finding a reference to it being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
My guess is that you did not know that March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month unless you or a member of your family have colorectal cancer, or that September was both Prostate and Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month or that November is both Pancreatic Cancer and Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
I asked a very intelligent and informed friend which kind of cancer caused the most deaths, and he responded, “breast cancer,” and was surprised when I told him that the correct answer was lung cancer. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide breast cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer, behind lung, stomach, liver and colorectal.
If your only concern is the United States, then the picture changes, except that lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, followed by colorectal cancer, then breast cancer. Lung cancer causes more deaths per year than the next three deadly cancers — colorectal, breast and prostate — together.
Yet breast cancer seems to get the most press. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: I hope researchers find a cure for breast cancer, and the sooner the better. My wife and I had a friend die of breast cancer, so I understand a bit of how it affects people. But I also had a sister die of colon cancer at age 42, and my wife is a survivor of primary peritoneal cancer, and I would like to see cures for them as well.
A search of guidestar.org, a database of nonprofit organizations, revealed that there are 1,616 nonprofits in the United States that deal with breast cancer in one way or another, while there are only 142 organizations that deal with lung cancer. There are 151 organizations in New York state that raise awareness, funds and do research on breast cancer, while only 23 do the same for lung cancer. Of the nationwide organizations, 104 breast cancer nonprofits have annual budgets of more than $10 million, while 33 have annual budgets of $5 million to $10 million. There are only three lung cancer organizations with annual budgets of more than $10 million, while 33 have annual budgets of $5 million to $10 million.
“So why does breast cancer get so much press?” I asked another friend. His immediate answer was, “The iconic status of the breast,” and, of course, he was not referring to the male breast or the 1 percent of breast cancer victims each year who are male, an insignificant percentage unless you happen to be one of those men. He was referring to the female breast and its iconic status in the United States. And, although his answer is an untested theory, it is the same as mine, and until some Ph.D. candidate writes a book on the subject, and proves the theory wrong, it seems self-evidently true.
Every generation in America has had someone to thank for her mammaries. Our grandparents had Mae West, whose name, for obvious reasons, became synonymous with a life jacket. My parents’ generation had Marilyn Monroe. My generation had Dolly Parton, among others. Today’s generation is very democratic, with more and more women displaying their cleavage every year in magazines, movies, on the street and at the beach.
As our obsession with the breast has grown, so has the desire for breast augmentations. They have increased from about 30,000 a year in 1990 to over 300,000 a year now, at an annual cost of
more than $2 trillion.
Hardly a week goes by in which I don’t see a bumper sticker that reads, “I Like Boobies.” And where but in America do you have a restaurant chain named Hooters? Think about it. Is there a restaurant chain called Schnoz, Baby Blues, Stems, or Keisters? But our obsession is schizoid. While we tolerate nude beaches, nudity in the movies and on television, women still get harassed sometimes for breastfeeding in public. I have no doubt that long before Lifetime ever produces a three-hanky weepy about a woman who has had a colostomy because of colon cancer or part of her tongue removed because of mouth cancer, we will witness a woman being arrested in a strip club for nursing an infant.
Before someone living in a vinyl-clad house throws a brick at my glass one, please do not falsely accuse me of hating women or not wanting a cure for breast cancer. I do not have an issue with all the publicity that breast cancer gets. I would just like to see the cancer that killed my sister, and the cancer my wife survived, and those cancers which are deadlier than breast cancer get the same amount of publicity as well as their fair share of research funding.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.