‘I wish I had breast cancer’

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?

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7 Responses to ‘I wish I had breast cancer’

  1. jane says:

    My mum passed away just over 2 years ago pancreatic cancer. We found out in september she died 3 days befoer christmas. I had never heard of it. I understand and belive the campaign is a good thing. My stepdad died 5 years ago of lung cancer. So I understand wht people are sayin. But we need to now more about pancreatic cancer.

  2. juliemack says:

    how sad i was to hear on the wright show of the passying of kerry i am myself battling breast cancer and i can say how humbled i felt and amdired her strength and diginty she showed to all the negitavie response she had, she just wanted to live like every other cancer sufferer even though you could see she was in terrible pain she still tried to get this message of truth across to everyone, may all them people hang there head in shame who critised her for trying to bring this awareness an hope for all cancer sufferers and hopefuly the the charitys of all cancers get the same monies has everyone should be given the chance to live

  3. I am one of 150,000 US people living with metastatic breast cancer. There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer in 2014. Median survival time for metastatic breast cancer is 2.5 to 3 months.

    Because media reports tend to favor hopeful stories of breast cancer survivors–people with early stage disease who have finished their treatment–the general public does not grasp that breast cancer kills half a million people worldwide–and they all die from metastatic breast cancer.

    I understand the frustration of those with pancreatic cancer. But in advancing their own agenda, they are giving the general impression that breast cancer isn’t a big deal or that even if you have metastatic disease this is somehow “better” than having other forms of metastatic cancer.

    Breast cancer is complex and cruel disease. Reducing it to a sound bite for shock value does none of us any favors.

    When you quote a five-year 87% survival rate for breast cancer, please understand the context.

    >Those statistics are for early stage breast cancer; not metastatic disease.

    >People die of metastatic disease, not primary breast cancer.

    >Breast cancer is not one disease.

    >Survival, mortality and incidence are not the same.

    >Mortality numbers tell the story more precisely than survival numbers. Breast cancer kills 40,000 annually in the US and half a million worldwide.

    >Screening skews the survival numbers. The more we screen, the more we diagnose and treat people with breast cancers that would not have been a threat to their lives (some DCIS, other slow growing invasive breast cancers, and others that are dormant or regressive); so it looks like survival for early stage breast cancer is 98 percent in the US.

    >But this is only a 5-year survival number—and includes the 20-30 percent of people who will have a metastatic recurrence and die of the disease later.

    >The incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed about the same; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.

    Suggesting breast cancer is “enviable” unfortunately may give people the idea that everyone who has it is cured. With these “great” numbers in mind, perhaps people will be tempted to skip their regular doctor and screening appointments–why worry? By the “I Wish…” campaign’s reckoning this is a “good” cancer.

    Note that cisplatin–the wonder drug responsible for the great survival rate with testicular cancer–is also used for treating pancreatic cancer. Ali Stunt herself has gotten this drug–it just show you we are all in this together.

    Please, no more disease olympics. The best science helps us all.

    Katherine O’Brien
    Metastatic Breast Cancer Network

    • Lindsay Kobayashi says:

      Well said Katherine, and thank you for your thoughtful words and valuable point of view.

      To build upon your comments, the documentary ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ is a fabulous resource. The film ‘shows how the devastating reality of breast cancer, which marketing experts have labeled a “dream cause,” has been hijacked by a shiny, pink story of success’. In the documentary, a support group of women with metastatic breast cancer are interviewed, and their point of views and feelings contrasted with the sound bites from industry executives gives an unsettling image of the culture of breast cancer in North America. I highly recommend watching it.


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