Is My Cancer in the Wrong Body Part?

Recently, our city hosted the fifth annual national marathon to fight breast cancer. This is not part of the Komen “race for the cure” but rather a grassroots effort that mushroomed from its inception five years ago into the impressive event it is today. Thousands of people participate as runners, volunteers, and cheerleaders clad in the signature color. I must admit, seeing some grown men run twenty six miles wearing pink tu-tus is both awe inspiring and a testament to dedication over self-image.

Its supporters include corporate sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors, and (no surprise) pharmaceutical companies. Its originators are a local TV celebrity breast cancer survivor and a cancer physician at Mayo clinic. It promises to donate 100% of the money to breast cancer research or care. To date, the event has raised millions of dollars and has met its contribution promise. It’s all very worthy, noble and heartwarming.

So why do I get an embarrassingly annoyed feeling when the pink parade makes its way through my neighborhood? After all, isn’t it a victory that so many people today recognize the need for education and awareness about a terrible disease that kills 40,000 women a year? Of course it is. And I have met many women breast cancer survivors who have become warm wonderful friends and I am thrilled for the overwhelming support they have.

The frustration seems even more puzzling in light of the fact that I am a cancer survivor myself. I was diagnosed in 2010 with advanced primary peritoneal ovarian cancer, the most lethal of all gynecological cancers with an alarmingly small overall survival rate. So for the past two years of chemotherapy and difficult treatment, I have struggled to suppress what feels like a petty sentiment about all the pink attention. If I just own up to it, I feel left out and I really want a parade with everyone wearing teal in support of ovarian research and care. My cancer! My body part! A cure for me!

I dare say I am not alone. Surely, people with lung, colorectal, pancreatic, cervical, and brain cancers wonder why there are few (if any) skillfully marketed efforts to win the war on their disease. Can’t we all have nationally publicized races with everybody clad in teal, or white, or yellow, or orange for their personal cancers? Sounds quite egalitarian, but if it ever happened, it would simply exacerbate the existing lopsided bias. It feels like we’re waging a war in which all the platoons are wandering in different directions in search of the same enemy. A seasoned military leader would scratch his head over that tactic.

So, what’s the answer? Perhaps its the recognition that we are in a new day and time. Science now acknowledges that all cancer, no matter where it nuzzles in, is a disease of cellular mutation and genetic aberration. In its simplest terms, its an orderly process gone haywire. Unfortunately, despite that fact, the message and the marketing about cancer remains the same. We are schooled to think of it in terms of specific body parts, especially if those body parts can be easily promoted. A T-shirt that says “Save the Colons” isn’t all that charming.

But perhaps we can change the tactic and keep the intent. Science today is developing genomic based treatments that target specific cancer cells. They are looking at tumor cells that circulate throughout the body, similar cancers that act differently for no apparent reason, and treatments that have broad applications for a wide variety of cancers. This is cutting edge research that correlates specific tumor characteristics to the individual, leading to more effective and certainly more tolerable treatments for all cancer patients. It is a new, exciting, and bigger scientific picture from anything we have known in the decades we have tried and failed to cure this disease. While we still may not find a cure in the near future, this will allow us to better manage cancer as a disease of the whole body.

Such sentiments do not discount the importance of individual research or question the motives of thousands who participate in the events to raise funds for a specific cancer. They are caring, generous people who are driven to help those in need and spare future generations. Many of them have a deep personal real life experience. Perhaps not so much on the vendor and retailer side, but that’s another issue. Maybe its unrealistic, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more visible united efforts to support research and care for everyone with cancer, regardless of body part? And if we must have a color, then let it be purple, the universal symbol of the disease. At the very least, we could cheer for a race where all survivors would feel the commitment to them as individuals. On the other hand, I would really love to see my husband in a pink tu-tu.

Elaine Waples is retired and lives in Atlantic Beach, FL.

2 replies »

  1. 1) What is the most common cancer in the U.S.?
    A: Not breast cancer
    2) Which cancer killed the most people in the U.S. last year?
    A: See #1

    I should volunteer that breast cancer holds second place in both of the above questions.

    Personally I think that Komen and all of the other breast cancer awareness campaigns have been a boon to all types of cancer research. I have no evidence of this however.

  2. Agreed. Now, if we could just get the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute to think horizontally (cross-cutting cancer research) instead of vertically (specific body-part research) we’d be getting somewhere!