So it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month again. Which means that life turns pink for the month of October. Celebrities wear pink and shops sell pink goods in an effort to raise funds for breast cancer. Which is great. In a way. Sort of. All this pink stuff has certainly helped over the years to get breast cancer on the map. Which is brilliant. People check their breasts. And people want to donate to breast cancer charities by buying these pink goods – be it a pink T shirt, a pink bracelet, a pink frying pan, pink cakes, pink everything. And that is all good, and well-intentioned. But, surely breast cancer awareness month should go beyond the pink.
This year (which, having been diagnosed with primary breast cancer in October 2016, is my third breast cancer awareness month since my diagnosis) I wanted to do something a little bit different for breast cancer awareness month. I wanted to raise awareness by telling people about the reality of breast cancer. I wanted to talk about it loudly, not in a hushed whisper with my head bowed down.
So, working with Breast Cancer Care, we have put together the Breast Cancer Film Project. A collective story of breast cancer. By the people with breast cancer.
The Breast Cancer Film Project
We asked people who are going through treatment for breast cancer, people who are trying to move on after finishing treatment for breast cancer and people who are living with terminal (secondary) breast cancer to tell us their stories (or just a part of their story) by sending a video clip which answered the question, ‘what does life with, or after, breast cancer mean to you?‘
And this is what we got. Three short films showing a snapshot of the real story of breast cancer, from those living it: (1) Life with Breast Cancer, (2) Moving On After Breast Cancer and (3) Life With Secondary Cancer
In these short films, people who are living with (or after) breast cancer show how life involves treatment, scans and tests. They show scars, fears and struggles. They show love, support and kindness. They show acceptance, hope and perseverance. They show life carrying on despite cancer. They show how to live life to the full. They show you real life with breast cancer. They are each around 2 minutes so, really, you don’t have an excuse not to watch them.
The Reality of Life With Breast Cancer Film (see full film at the end of this post)
What is the point of raising awareness?
So what is the point of making this film to raise awareness, you may ask. You may already know that breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK*, you may recall that it affects men as well as women, you may have read somewhere that there are around 54,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, that’s around 150 every day (2013-2015)*, and you may have heard that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lives**. So knowing all this, you may already check your breasts for signs of anything abnormal. And you may have participated in, or sponsored, a fund raising event such as a run or a walk raising money for breast cancer. So you may be thinking, “what is the point of more awareness?”
Well, it’s a good question, but think about this…
EDUCATE. Raising awareness helps to educate people about breast cancer. So let me educate you.
Before I had breast cancer I thought that there was just “breast cancer”. I was surprised to learn that actually there are all sorts of different types of breast cancer. First, there is primary breast cancer. This is the most common form of breast cancer and it is cancer which manifests in the breast and has either not spread outside the breast, or has just spread to the lymph nodes. Under the umbrella of “primary breast cancer” there are different types (too many to discuss here, but CRUK have some excellent information about the different types). Breast cancer can be found at different points of growth and spread and this is what is commonly known as “grade” (how different the cancer cells are to normal breast cells and how quickly they are growing) and “stage” (the size of the cancer and how far it has spread – breast cancer may be described as stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 or stage 4).
And then there are things called “receptors” which are proteins on the tumour that hormones or other proteins can attach to and stimulate the cancer to grow. All of these factors affect the treatment that will be given (there are many different treatments) and the prognosis. Primary breast cancer has a good survival rate. Breast cancer survival is improving and has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK.* And this is thanks to an increased awareness of breast cancer: people being breast aware and catching breast cancer early when it can be treated with an excellent prognosis; people donating more money to breast cancer research resulting in the development of new treatments; and bringing those treatments to the patients. It is highly likely that pink October has played a huge part in all of this.
But now, let’s move on to a lesser known aspect of breast cancer: secondary breast cancer (also known as “advanced” breast cancer or “metastatic” breast cancer). Primary breast cancer is scary; secondary breast cancer is the really scary one. It’s the one which scares every primary breast cancer patient and as such it is often whispered about, brushed under the carpet or even ignored. And those of you who haven’t been affected by breast cancer may not even have heard of it (I certainly hadn’t before I had my own run-in with primary breast cancer).
Secondary breast cancer is where breast cancer cells spread from the first (primary) cancer in the breast through the lymphatic or blood system to other parts of the body. Roughly five in every 100 people with breast cancer already have secondaries when their cancer is first diagnosed ** and it is roughly estimated that a further 35 out of every 100 people with primary breast cancer will develop secondary breast cancer within 10 years of their first breast cancer diagnosis.** It is estimated that around 35,000 people are currently living with secondary breast cancer in the UK.** There is currently no cure for secondary breast cancer. Depending on a number of factors (including how far the cancer has spread, where it has spread to and for how long the cancer has been spreading) the length of time that someone can survive after a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer varies greatly from a matter of weeks to years and it’s growth can often (but not always) be controlled with treatments.
So think about it: yes the survival statistics for primary breast cancer are excellent, but if the statistics are that 1 in 3 people who have primary breast cancer will move on to have incurable/terminal secondary breast cancer, surely something major needs to be done here? Research is needed to find a way to prevent primary breast cancer spreading into secondary breast cancer; into stopping treatments becoming resistant; and into prolonging the lives of people with secondary breast cancer by finding a way of turning it into a long term chronic illness (because, quite frankly, it seems that cure is out of realistic reach).
There you go, you now know some facts about breast cancer and more about the realities of life with breast cancer. Yes, breast cancer is scary, but it is also (unfortunately) a huge part of life and it will probably affect everyone at some stage whether by having it themselves or knowing friends and family with cancer. We need to encourage people to talk about it rather than hide from it. There is no need for breast cancer to be taboo. There is no need to whisper about it or be scared to say the word. Raising awareness will help lead to an openness about it and perhaps it will help to reduce some ‘fear of the unknown’.
Now that you know some facts about breast cancer and what life is like with breast cancer, we can move onto …
CHECK. Raising awareness will remind people (both women and men) to regularly check their breasts and to check them properly.
Nobody wants to get breast cancer, but given the statistics I’ve told you about, you’ll be keen to check your breasts for any signs of abnormality. In fact, you probably check already. BUT, don’t just have a quick squeeze in the shower every now and again. Inform yourself about how to check, what to check and when to check. There are plenty of resources out there to help (and I’ve created a list of links for you). Whilst there are a few life style factors that can minimise the risk of getting breast cancer, it is actually just an indiscriminate evil little beast that can enter the life of anyone over the age of 20 (although there are cases of people under 20 having it) and it doesn’t care about your gender, the colour of your skin, where you live, how old you are, what religion you are, what faith you follow, whether you exercise, what you eat or whether you are a good person. Finding breast cancer early can literally save your life.
And in the meantime, now you know more about breast cancer and you are regularly checking your breasts, you could do something to help…
DONATE. Raising awareness will encourage people to join in with raising vital funds for research to stop people dying of breast cancer and funds to support those with breast cancer.
How can you raise funds? Well, for a start you can make an informed decision about where to donate money in aid of breast cancer. Don’t just buy a pink t-shirt from a high street clothing store or a jar of jam with a pink ribbon from the condiment section of the supermarket.
Research how much of the money that you pay for the t-shirt or jam actually goes to the charity (if any – because there are some rogues out there who use pink to sell their wares and don’t give a penny to charity). Yes, I know that something is better than nothing, and there is a place for these items (the Pink Ribbon Foundation, for example, rely upon funds received from the sale of these types of products) but why not consider making a direct donation to one or more breast cancer charities, or holding a fundraising event for one of the charities, so that more of your money makes its way directly to the charity? And have a good look at all the charities to which you could donate.
But whichever charity you choose – do your research first. Some charities fund research, some fund support, some fund campaigns. Some fund a variety of these things. They are all deserving of your money, you just need to decide what is important to you. For more information about donating to a breast cancer charity please read this page where I have identified ten excellent charities doing work in the breast cancer sector, together with breakdowns of how they spend their money and quick links to help you donate.
So, please don’t whisper about breast cancer. Don’t feel that you need to speak in hushed tones if you, or someone you know, has breast cancer. Talk about it. Check yourself. Help your family members and friends who are going through it. Donate to a worthy charity after doing your research. And, if you want to buy pink this month, please do.
Watch out for the second and third short films next week: Moving On After Breast Cancer and Life With Secondary Cancer
EDUCATE. CHECK. DONATE.
*Statistics courtesy of Cancer Research UK
**Statistics courtesy of Breast Cancer Now
Thanks to Jo Taylor ABC Diagnosis for her advice on the information about secondary breast cancer. Also thanks to Breast Cancer Care for some of the information.
Life With Breast Cancer…