The Social Side of Cancer

Recently, I came across a blogpost written by Caitlin Carmody, who is the membership coordinator for Breast Cancer Action, a group that calls itself the watchdog of the breast cancer movement.

The post (you can read it here) is a couple of years old but I think Ms. Carmody raises some pretty important questions that I’m not sure are being adequately answered. She quite rightly I feel points out that although there’s been a proliferation of pink ribbons which encourage women to think about breast cancer and to take steps to minimize their risks, “pink ribbons don’t encourage us to think about social justice.”

She argues that the pink ribbon movement focuses on individual responsibility — for example, avoid toxins, exercise, eat organic, do that mammogram, and so on — but does not look at the contexts in which breast cancer risk and diagnosis occur. What follows is the list of the societal contexts she highlighted:

What if your primary language is not English? (my primary language is English and eliminating toxins in my personal life is still a full-time research project requiring three dictionaries)

What if you live in a food desert?

What if your profession is hazardous to your health?

What if you don’t have health insurance?

What if you do have health insurance but not an extra $8,000?

What if you bear the burden of this country’s environmental waste, which is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer? (major kudos to the President’s Cancer Panel for acknowledging this)

What if the federal agency entrusted to ensure your food is safe, approved a growth hormone that increases your risk of breast cancer?

I don’t know if there are private and/or governmental agencies and consortia that are trying to address these questions as they relate to cancer. These aren’t issues that are exclusive to breast cancer alone. There is research that shows that there are other cancers that are linked in some way to environmental toxins and hazardous work environments for instance.

As a journalist, I’ve written in some detail about cancer and the efforts to develop better and more personalized treatments for the disease and all its subtypes. I‘ve also had a chance to see how new technologies and a better understanding of DNA help researchers and physicians select more effective therapies for their patients.

But research and stronger drugs are just parts of the puzzle. We need to consider the social and economic aspects. I think the BCA’s questions are a good starting point. If you are aware of any efforts to tackle these questions, please share them in the comments section.

Uduak Thomas, M.A., is a journalist and science writer specializing in medical research and healthcare. She is Social Media Editor for Cancer InCytes Magazine.


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