Spare me breast cancer month

Health Check
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The Independent Culture
THE NEXT sentence may bring me brickbats, but too bad. I am tired of campaigns to increase awareness of breast cancer.

Spare me the pink ribbons, the pink rugby balls (yes, really), surveys, demos. My desk is yawning under the piles of press releases saying October is Breast Cancer Awareness month - and I am yawning, too. We need Breast Cancer Unawareness month.

Wish it had been my idea, but it is Professor Michael Baum's, head of the breast unit at University College Hospital, London.

He complained more than a year ago that young women under 30 are bombarded with warnings that one in 12 will get cancer, when the figures show that fewer than one in 1,000 in fact does.

This is the commonest unwanted side-effect of awareness campaigns - creating excessive anxiety. Professor Baum was supported by other specialists who complained of the worried-well overwhelming their clinics.

Dr Ian Smith, of the Royal Marsden Hospital, warned of scaremongering and pointed out that nine out of ten breast lumps are benign - of which, surprisingly, there is little awareness.

Other specialists are irritated by breast cancer's trendy image and its unfair share of resources.

The chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief, Nicholas Young, noted tartly last week: "There are more than 200 different types of cancer. All cancer patients deserve the highest levels of treatment and care."

The Prostate Cancer Charity was more direct. It pointed out that pounds 4m a year is being spent by the health department on breast cancer research, compared with less than pounds 100,000 on prostate cancer, and there are 155 support groups for affected women compared with two for men. Deaths from prostate cancer number 9,000 a year and are expected to triple over the next 20 years, while breast cancer deaths - 12,000 a year - are falling.

It is the link with sex and its impact on a woman's image of herself that guarantee breast cancer's profile: its charities often claim they aren't hogging the limelight by saying all cancer charities should aim for the same high profile.

I am not so sure. Certain cancers - eg bowel cancer - have too little awareness still, and there is, generally, too much fear of a disease that is often treatable.

In 20 years, one in two of us will get cancer at some time in our lives.

So, it would be a pity if our lives were blighted by wondering which half it is going to strike.