A world without breast cancer | Breast Cancer UK

A world without breast cancer

Published 1 Oct 2014

Gill Hay, Chair, Breast Cancer UK

Imagine it: a world without breast cancer.  It is the stuff of dreams, but not, I think, impossible.   And we believe that the many thousands that climb, jump, walk, run, bake, cycle or knit to raise funds during Breast Cancer Awareness month do not think it is impossible either. 

We have come a long way since Breast Cancer Awareness month first started in America back in 1985.  It was originally a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) to promote mammography and early detection as the main weapon against breast cancer, enabling early treatment and increasing survival rates.  And you can’t argue that this campaign hasn’t been successful.  Awareness of breast cancer is indeed at an all time high and the pink ribbon is possibly one of the most widely recognized symbols of today’s battle against cancer.

As a result of Breast Cancer Awareness month, breast cancer research funding has doubled in the past ten years. This investment into research has led to significant improvements in the effectiveness of treatment.   And having been diagnosed myself with breast cancer in 2004, I’m personally really grateful for this. It is, for many women, now becoming possible to have long lives “living with breast cancer”.

But breast cancer still takes its toll; it has not been cured. And the treatment is still arduous, the after effects debilitating, and the support variable. I don't recommend it. In fact, I really would prefer that no-one else had to go through it at all.

That’s why it deeply troubles me that, for all our awareness, breast cancer rates are still rising.  Despite the global marketing success of the pink ribbon, breast cancer awareness month, Pinktober etc,  thousands of people in the UK – women and men, and their families and friends - continue to have to face the challenges and trauma that a diagnosis of breast cancer brings. 

It troubles me that what is being done is not being done quickly enough to stop, let alone make a dent in, the ongoing rise in breast cancer.  In particular, it troubles me that we’ve yet to really start, what for me, is the most important conversation of all: how do we prevent breast cancer from happening in the first place?

I think it’s time this conversation changed from a whisper in the margins of the breast cancer debate to a full and frank discussion. What puts women at risk of breast cancer? What triggers breast cells to develop into cancers? What is it in our environment that makes breast cancer more likely? And for this full and frank discussion, we need to increase our understanding of, and investment in, prevention. It shocked me when I learnt that, for all the money spent on cancer research  in 2012, spending on  prevention was just 3.6%. Furthermore, investigation into the environmental causes of cancers was only 1.1% of total spend. That’s woefully inadequate to inform this crucial discussion.

Change is happening, but it is happening slowly, far too slowly. Scientists across the world are increasingly exploring one of the key risk factors for breast cancer – our exposure to harmful chemicals in our environment, food and products we use. Policy makers in Europe and several states in the USA are starting to take heed of the warnings from numerous scientists and the World Health Organisation that our increasingly routine exposure to these toxins is creating an array of health problems which includes breast cancer. But in the UK, this central and vital issue appears cloaked in silence. We want to change this. If we are going to make a dent in the rise in breast cancer in the UK, we need breast cancer prevention to be in every cancer researcher's mind, in every public health department's policies, and in every company's priorities.

That’s why I became Chair of Breast Cancer UK; uniquely in the UK, we put prevention first. We raise money to collate and fund research to pin down the elusive chemical and environmental causes of breast cancer and we work on persuading government and businesses to remove these causes.

We’re on the cusp of a change that could turn the tide of the breast cancer epidemic. So why not join us and make this October really count by refocusing that positive awareness into action for prevention?

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