You’d think that cancer would bring everyone together – irrespective of where it occurs. You’d be wrong. Cancer has too often become a political beachball used by various charity groups and political groups to further their own agenda. It’s an emotive issue – so is ripe for exploitation.
Take recent press stories in the UK around deaths from cancer. The depressing count showed that colorectal cancer is the second biggest killer in the UK after lung cancer, yet these cancers are not mentioned in much of the recent coverage, or just glossed over (see BBC coverage). Why? Because the stats were being promoted by Prostate Cancer UK and there was a clear agenda – promote the fact that a large number of men were dying of prostate cancer and get more money for that cause.
While that aim is a perfectly worthy one – and few would disagree with the fact that prostate cancer needs more resources and more emphasis – what the charity did was chuck other cancer sufferers under the bus to achieve their aim. Part of that was deliberate and part was inadvertent because they created a media flurry that drew negative and gendered comparisons between prostate cancer and breast cancer. But even beyond that, they also conveniently swept the two biggest (and non-gendered) cancer killers under the carpet because they didn’t fit the agenda.
Their own stats show that while prostate cancer is now the third biggest killer in the UK, causing 11,819 deaths in 2015, that is around one-third of the deaths from lung cancer (35,486) and around two-thirds of the deaths caused by colorectal cancer (16,067).
The fact that prostate cancer now kills more people than breast cancer was used to fan the flames of a gendered argument. More money is being poured into breast cancer and more research is being done and bigger gains are being made, was their argument. There was an undercurrent of ‘this isn’t fair’. This completely glosses over the fact that women and their supporters have had to make huge efforts to raise the profile of breast cancer and raise the money to fund that research. Breast cancer rates are going down and that’s a good thing. Now we all need to work together to do the same with other cancers – including prostate cancer.
Well as a survivor of colorectal cancer let me tell you what it’s like to have ‘an unfashionable cancer’ that people don’t want to talk about. Firstly, people expect me to be in my 70s and are surprised I’m not. As a cancer whose typical sufferer is older, not only is detection skewed towards older people but it’s harder for a younger person to get a diagnosis. When we do, we find there’s less support and less fever to cure our type of cancer because there are still perceptions of it being a disease of old age and of the elderly – and therefore somehow less worthy of money for prevention and treatment – even though it’s one of the most treatable cancers when caught early.
There’s also still a huge amount that’s not known about colorectal cancer and too little funding for vital research. Try talking to any researcher in this area and they’ll tell you how getting funding is hard, because they’re often competing with other cancers that have a higher profile (yes, there’s that damned politics again!).
Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that while there are tests available for colorectal cancer many people (around 4 out of 10) who are offered a test simply ignore it. The head-in-the-sand response means that people with symptoms of colorectal cancer may ignore them for months or even years. Embarrassment combined with lack of understanding about the varied signs of colorectal cancer are literally killing thousands of people unnecessarily.
As a survivor of a ‘non-gendered’ cancer I can tell you that in truth it was a bit irritating to be sat on the edge of the breast cancer sisterhood. Yes, I admit to being jealous at seeing, but being excluded from, their well-organised and tight club. But I’m not going to go hating on these women. Rather, I take inspiration from the fact that they and their supporters have reacted to a horrible disease by working to raise money for research and to support those who get it. The women themselves were actually really nice to me. They didn’t actively exclude me – I felt excluded simply because my experience of cancer was different to theirs and not being accommodated.
There is a real and unintended danger that the success of the breast cancer campaign, means other cancers are neglected and don’t receive their fair share of research money or awareness. But we can’t blame women and their supporters for that. It’s up to us who have suffered from other cancers to take up the mantle and do something about raising awareness and money.
Let’s be clear: cancer is the enemy here – not other cancer sufferers. It’s ridiculous to think we all live in a gendered vacuum where we’re only interested in the issues affecting our own sex. I have male relatives and friends I care deeply about and I want them to be well. Men have fought alongside women to beat breast cancer in order to support their mothers, wives, girlfriends, aunts, sisters, daughters and friends. Of course I want men to be aware of their prostate health and survive in greater numbers, but I also want them to be aware of their bowel health and their lung health.
Let’s develop a rounded awareness of cancer and how it might manifest, rather than focusing on individual cancers at the expense of others. This is particularly important for those of us that are acutely aware that our cancer might spread and reappear in another area. For colorectal cancer survivors it’s most likely to be our liver or our lungs where we get secondary tumours (see If my cancer comes back, where will it be? ) so it’s in our own interests to also be concerned about liver and lung cancers.
The goal here has to be good health for all – preventing cancer and making it a treatable and survivable condition whatever form it comes in.