Cancer wars

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Source: Sydney Morning Herald – Jane Cadzow.

As the big guns throw their weight behind “pink” charities, other killer cancers are being left behind in the race for funding.

In the boardroom of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Carole Renouf smiles apologetically. An engaging woman in an elegant black suit, she is explaining why she nearly turned down the job of chief executive of the foundation. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to work on breast cancer. It’s got too much money,’ ” she says.

Cancer in its different forms is the leading cause of death in Australia. The biggest killer is lung cancer, followed by bowel cancer and prostate cancer. Breast cancer comes fourth on the list, yet it is the one that gets by far the most cash and attention.

Bowel cancer patients aren’t much inclined to speak up. ‘We have our own hurdle – it’s the yuck factor.’

Last financial year, the federal government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) allocated 40 per cent more research funding to the disease than to any other type of cancer. And government money is just the start. Tens of millions of dollars are raised in the community and given to breast-cancer charities, the largest of which is the foundation Renouf heads. “No one’s cancer is more special than anyone else’s,” she says.

But if the pinking of Australia is any indication, many believe breast cancer is more equal than others. The same day I meet Renouf, I board a Qantas plane with a large pink ribbon painted on its fuselage. The ribbon is the international symbol of breast cancer awareness, though these days a discreet flutter of pink on a lapel isn’t enough to show that you care.

At annual fund-raising events such as the McGrath Foundation’s Pink Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (“Together we can make a difference!”) and the Mother’s Day Classic at parks and ovals around the country (“Walk or run for breast cancer research!”), it’s pink shirts, pink shorts, pink shoes, pink hats, pink wigs, pink fairy wings, pink rabbit ears. Pink, pink, pink, as far as the eye can see.

Recently, a Gold Coast veterinarian named Geoff Wilson raised more than $200,000 by dragging a giant pair of pink plastic breasts – inevitably dubbed a “boobsled” – about 3400 kilometres across the icy wastes of Antarctica. When conditions permitted, he flew pink flags from the nipples. Wilson’s trek won him the praise of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. “You didn’t do it for personal glory,” Abbott said, “you did it for a cause.”

The crusade against breast cancer is so vehement and visible that you could be forgiven for thinking we were in the grip of an epidemic. In fact, the disease is responsible for only 4 per cent of female deaths in Australia – heart disease, stroke, dementia, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases all kill more women. We have one of the world’s highest breast-cancer survival rates: nine out of 10 women are alive five years after diagnosis.

Still, even one death is too many, says Renouf, who in three years at the foundation has come to the view that there is no such thing as an embarrassment of riches when it comes to funding research. To keep the dollars flowing, the foundation’s website advertises a range of pink products – everything from Pink Ribbon Home Loans to pink pyjamas, pink worm farms and pink-packaged taco wraps. The message across the top of the page: “Show your support for breast cancer research by going shopping!”

Melbourne oncologist Ian Haines is slightly uneasy about this kind of thing. “A lot of cancer researchers worry about how much breast cancer siphons off,” Haines says. “It’s become an industry, hasn’t it?”

While Renouf has no qualms about the marketing of what she calls “the breast cancer brand”, she admits to being unsettled by the fervour that fuels “Pink Inc”. “When I started here,” she says, “I had a funny conversation with the head of a PR firm. He said to me, ‘What do you think makes even men so passionate about the breast-cancer movement?’

“I gave this very romantic answer: ‘Well, surely it’s because they are worried about losing the women they love.’ He said, ‘No, no. It’s not about that at all. It’s the part of the body that it is. The thought of my wife losing a breast absolutely hits me where I live.”

Renouf laughs. “I think that’s why you have the heads of TV stations, most of whom are male, donating thousands of dollars of advertising space for breast cancer,” she says. “There’s almost hysteria around the fact that it’s the breast – symbol of sexuality, motherhood, all of that.” Her own attitude to breast cancer is uncomplicated. “I’ll get crucified for saying this, but to me it’s no better or worse than any other disease.”

Read the full story on the SMH



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The ONA Editor curates oncology news, views and reviews from Australia and around the world for our readers. In aggregated content, original sources will be acknowledged in the article footer.

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