Prevention, Awareness, and the Unpopular Cancers

February is National Cancer Prevention Month, which we learned from this American Cancer Society cancer awareness calendar. Looking at this calendar, we found it interesting to see what types of cancers merit their own awareness month. The most common types of cancers are breast, lung, and prostate, with reportedly 225,000 new cases of breast cancer expected in 2017. This perhaps best known cancer - breast cancer - has its time in the spotlight in October when everything from airline napkins to NFL uniforms turns pink. Some evidence has led to books and opinion pieces questioning whether all the awareness leads to any real change in fighting the disease. To be honest, we didn’t have many charitable thoughts about breast cancer awareness in the October when we learned that our sister was dying of a rare form of cancer.

Colleen was unlucky not only in that her type of cancer was very rare, but also in that she was a rare patient. She was young - in her mid-20s - when she was first diagnosed. Her cancer appeared as a neuroendrocrine tumor (NET), which more typically occurs in a middle-aged man. It was a difficult and complex cancer to learn about as there are about 40 types of NETs and they can behave differently and appear in various organs. It seemed impossible to have a clear and tested way of treating her. She was also a special patient because she was a physician herself. She studied her cancer, learning about its disease process, symptoms, drugs that slowed its growth, and responses to treatment. She was her own champion for her health.

We often felt frustrated that more was not known about her cancer and her options. It sometimes felt like there were more resources available to the famous cancers. Research tells us that there is a mismatch of funding among different types of cancer. To us it seemed unfair that not only did Colleen have an underfunded cancer in terms of research, she also lacked other types of support that may come from having a recognizable disease. We have heard a friend describe her cancer experience as wonderful, mentioning that she received an entire binder of resources for her cancer. Without recognition and more support, Colleen was never going to find a yoga class tailored to her specific cancer as our friend did. Upon studying the cancer awareness calendar, it turns out that there is, in fact, a Neuroendrocrine Tumor Day in November. Who knew?

But knowing that there was an awareness day for her cancer wouldn’t have changed much for us. We didn’t necessarily want a special colored ribbon unless it would have effected real change in Colleen’s outcome. The contrast of beating cancer versus dying of it is a big one. The awareness campaigns focus on those living with it or surviving and, obviously, they want to stay positive. Their goals are fundraising for research, support, and more awareness campaigning. Those who are losing their battle to the disease may feel left behind.

Why do we dedicate certain days and months to certain types of cancer and not others, anyways? There are so many kinds of cancer, and they all deserve our attention. We worry that the very rare ones will be left out, which doesn’t seem right. As this article in Chicago Health argues, “lesser-known cancers deserve equal attention so that people can be better informed about symptoms and new developments in diagnosis and treatments. And with more attention will hopefully come additional financial support necessary for research to improve survival rates.”

Focusing on cancer prevention this month, rather than awareness of a particular kind, seems much more inclusive and more productive. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research says that eating healthy, staying active and lean are all ways that you can avoid one third of cancers. But even the cancer prevention focus leaves out those who are currently fighting the disease.

Unfortunately, people continue to die of cancer at staggering numbers. We should focus on continuing to support all kinds of cancers and all patients - no matter their age, race, gender, or stage of disease. Whether you talk about awareness or prevention, the commonality is that cancer is a beast and it affects people in terrible ways. It may help just by being “aware” that the colored ribbons alone don’t make the pain and suffering go away.