Every October it’s the same: an avalanche of pink products rain down online and beyond, all under the umbrella of finding a cure for breast cancer. It’s a laudable goal, except that so much of it is complete and utter b.s..
Take, for instance, the latest sweetheart of the cancer month, The Keep a Breast Foundation. This organization (responsible for the “I Love Boobies” wristbands that caused high school controversy recently) is aimed at younger women, and is targeting the fitness community in a pretty serious way. Problem is, Keep a Breast has nothing to do with raising money for breast cancer cures or research, it’s all about raising breast cancer awareness, thus the play on words. “Awareness” is a fairly open term, and in the case of Keep a Breast, pretty much means that your donated or raised funds go to whatever green or environmental causes the organization feels like funding, not real research. It does nothing to lower the breast cancer rate at all.
Added to this bullshit is the other, more obvious bullshit about keeping a breast, as if having to lose a breast because it’s a big bag of bad news is a fate worse than death. For an organization with a message aimed at younger women, this is particularly unfortunate, since younger women tend to get much more serious, aggressive breast cancers that often require mastectomies. Forget about keeping those breasts; sacrificing them often means the difference between living cancer free or having a recurrence that just might finish you.
Although previous research indicated that there was no difference in risk of recurrence between mastectomies and lumpectomies, the info for younger women with breast cancer might be different. In a recent European study (European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology, ESTRO), that tracked 1076 women under 45 from the time of diagnosis and treatment with either mastectomy or breast-conserving therapy over 20 year period, found that the women who kept their breasts had a 13% higher local recurrence. Keep in mind that this is just one study, but also keep in mind that the massive 2014 study of 130,000 women with breast cancer that found no survival benefits to mastectomy had a median age of 57, and for mastectomy, 62. And in cancer, age matters.
Women also have the advantage of genetic testing to help them make wise health decisions. Discovering at an earlier age that you have the BRCA gene(s) delivers a pre-emptive strategy for breast cancer: a preventive mastectomy and reconstruction before the over 80% chance of developing cancer ever has a chance to emerge. I have a friend who, in her mid-forties, did just that, and regrets nothing. Keeping her breasts would have left her living in fear after every mammogram, just waiting for the cancer to appear.
Still, there’s nothing easy about deciding to amputate your breasts, even if they’re plotting to kill you. Deciding between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy is a woman’s medical choice, and can only be made by the woman with the guidance of her doctor. Any campaign or organization that suggests that one choice is superior that another—that keeping breasts is “better” than taking them off, is interfering with that choice in a way I deem pretty irresponsible. To aim that particular message at younger women, who are more likely to have aggressive cancers, seems misguided at best.
If you really want to give a donation this October, or anytime, to foundations and organizations that really do contribute greatly to breast cancer research, try a site like Charity Navigator. The site can steer you toward charities that put the majority of their funds to work to directly benefit women’s health and cancer cures, not pithy lip service and pink merchandise.