I’m quite glad Pinktober – breast cancer awareness month – is over. Social media has been filled with an avalanche of pink: how to check your breasts; signs of breast cancer; warnings not to put off your mammogram etc etc. But how much more awareness do we actually need? Surely most women know you should check your breasts regularly for any changes?
I did. I checked. I found a lump. I went to the GP and got referred to the hospital. I got diagnosed with breast cancer.
But my awareness doesn’t change my chances of surviving the next five years. And my awareness didn’t help me avoid a harsh, gruelling treatment regimen.
But research might. New treatments might.
I think this concentration on awareness perpetuates the myth that all we have to do to survive breast cancer is to ‘catch it early’. But this only really applies to non-invasive cells found on mammogram routine screening. Mammograms are not offered to women under 50 years old, and anyway they aren’t as effective in detecting changes in younger women’s dense breast tissue.
Once you can feel a lump, the cancer cells have already become invasive and – even if they are small or slow-growing – there is always a chance that they have spread elsewhere in the body, to re-emerge months or years later. Even after chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which aim to ‘mop up’ rogue cells around the body, the risk remains. In my case there’s around 25-30% chance of the cancer spreading to another part of my body in the future (metastasizing).
And once the cancer is metastatic, or secondary, it is incurable. 11,400 people die in the UK from breast cancer every year.
So I, like the 55,000 other UK women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer every year, walk around with this knowledge, and it’s really hard not to let the fear overwhelm you.
Pictures of healthy women flashing their cleavages in pink bras to ‘raise awareness’ don’t help. But a shift in focus towards putting research into secondary cancer at the forefront of the government’s and charities’ priorities might.
To mark the end of Pinktober – in recognition of those living with, and dying of, secondary breast cancer – and as a mark of hope, I’ve made a donation to Secondary1st .
Maybe you will too? xxx