Tuesday, May 03, 2011

No More Riding the Wave

Is it possible to end breast cancer?

That’s the question more than 800 advocates addressed this weekend at the annual meeting of the National Breast Cancer Coalition in Washington, DC. NBCC has set an aggressive—some say impossible—goal of ending breast cancer by January 1, 2020.

Attending this conference has always been a highlight of my year. After almost ten years at Living Beyond Breast Cancer, it’s pretty easy to get lost in paperwork and office politics. This conference reminds me of one of the major reasons I got into breast cancer advocacy in the first place: to speak for those who have no voice.

It’s shocking, but many more women have been silenced by breast cancer than you might think. It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the ocean of pink, riding the wave of good feeling that comes from buying products that support breast cancer. Even I succumb to it from time to time, although I see and talk and write about the ravages of this disease every day. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t take issue with people who wear or buy pink to show their support to women with breast cancer. I just don’t think doing that alone is enough.

Why? Because according to NBCC’s research:

  • In 2008, 1.4 million women worldwide were diagnosed with breast cancer. Nearly half a million died.

  • In 1991, an estimated 119 U.S. women died of breast cancer every day. In 2010, it was 110.

  • In 1975, about 10 out of every 100,000 U.S. women were diagnosed with stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer. That number is the same today.

  • In 1975, women with metastatic disease had an estimated 0 percent chance of living five years after diagnosis. Today, the chances have grown—to around 35 percent.

I don’t know about you, but this representation of “progress” simply isn’t good enough for me. It’s not good enough for the strong, talented, beautiful, intelligent women I meet every day at my job. They deserve so much better than 35 percent.

NBCC launched its campaign, called The Breast Cancer Deadline 2020, in September 2010. At the conference, I got a copy of the baseline status report, which explains how NBCC will measure its success each year until 2020. The twin goals are to uncover methods of preventing first-time breast cancer, and to halt the recurrence of already diagnosed disease. If I could, I would add a third goal, to find cures for women facing breast cancer now.

I was extremely skeptical when I first heard about this campaign. Breast cancer is an incredibly complex disease. In fact, it’s not one disease; it’s a family of diseases related by their origination in the breast. They grow for different reasons and along different pathways. Some go away and never come back; others attack with relentlessness until they overwhelm the body. How can we set a goal when we have no idea what we’re facing?

I think Fran Visco, NBCC’s president, said it best. “What if we fail? We have already failed.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to meet this deadline. But I believe it is possible to see a problem differently. To step back for a moment, to give the problem a fresh look. To ask the math teacher for her perspective on history. To spend hours composing a piece of music, only to throw it away and start afresh. It is possible to hear the same words a thousand times but to understand their meaning only when spoken by a different voice. To change the conversation.

I am on board. Are you with us?

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