Earlier this month, Pancreatic Cancer Action launched a controversial advertising campaign featuring the image above. The campaign depicts bleak, pity-inducing photos of pancreatic cancer patients. This one shows Kerry, a 24-year old woman stating, “I wish I had breast cancer”. The campaign has exploded in the media over the past fortnight, with angry statements from breast cancer charities and even a death threat against Kerry for wishing she had breast cancer in place of her pancreatic cancer diagnosis. The question underlying the entire backlash is whether we should be pitting cancers against one another.
Breast cancer charities have spoken out against the ads. Samia al Qadhi, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Care said:
“Unless you have experienced it yourself, it’s impossible to fully understand the huge challenge faced by women who wake up every day to the brutal reality of breast cancer… Breast cancer still kills 12,000 women each year and more than 30,000 are living with a terminal diagnosis. It is unhelpful to pit one cancer against another. Most of us know someone who has been affected by this dreadful, life threatening disease and know the impact it can have on those affected and their loved ones. We all need to do more to raise awareness of signs and symptoms of many cancers and the importance of early diagnosis”
The purpose of the pancreatic cancer campaign was to raise the awareness that while the survival rate for breast cancer is about 85% and for testicular cancer (the target of another ad featuring a man) is about 97%, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer is a mere 3%. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is basically seen as a death sentence. We don’t hear very much about pancreatic cancer in the news or from charities (what colour would the pancreatic cancer ribbon be?) because it’s a rare cancer. It affects fewer people than breast cancer: 8 women per 100,000 in the UK were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, compared with 125 per 100,000 diagnosed with breast cancer (Cancer Research UK). Does this give pancreatic cancer campaigners the right to proclaim ‘their’ disease is worse than breast cancer, and therefore more deserving of charity money?
Some positivity has come out of this debacle: people are talking about pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic Cancer Action’s website has received an over 200% increase in web traffic (likely to be higher by now), with a particular spike in visits to the page describing symptoms of pancreatic cancer. The charity is taking advantage of this attention by launching a second wave of their advertising campaign, which will focus on symptom detection:
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are:
- Persistent, new onset upper abdominal or upper back pain
- Jaundice – yellowing skin or eyes, itchy skin
- Unexplained weight loss
- Foul smelling stool that won’t flush easily
Pancreatic Cancer Action states:
“Due to lack of awareness of the disease and symptoms, people are often diagnosed too late for surgery, which is currently the only cure. The average life expectancy most people face is just four to six months”
Opening a dialogue whereby people can debate ethical issues about the way we see and talk about the different types of cancers, the stories we tell ourselves about each, and the taboos surrounding health issues is a positive thing. The fact that awareness is being raised about a rare cancer type that kills due to lack of symptom detection and late diagnosis is even better. Perhaps this entire controversy will save a few lives. If it does – was the shock value worth it?