Breast versus other cancers: make progress, not war

March 7th, 2014

There’s an adversarial through line running in the media these days about breast cancer versus other cancers, as though it’s some sort of gladiatorial contest. The argument is that breast cancer has had too much attention and money, and it’s time for it to move over and make room for the ‘underserved’ cancers such as lung, ovarian, bowel, pancreatic and cancers of unknown origin.

My personal belief is that it’s a grave mistake to pit breast cancer against other cancers. There is no need to drive ‘cancer envy’ and it’s counter productive. No one’s cancer is any more special or deserving of attention or funding than anyone else’s. We know cancer, in some form, will affect one in two men and one in three women in Australia. Cancer is a reality nearly all of us will face, largely simply due to the ageing of our population and our longer lifespan. Put very simply, cancer occurs when the normal process of cell growth and proliferation goes awry, and every year we age increases the chances of this occurring.

There is no question that the current state of play is not ‘equal’, in the sense that we have more knowledge, better treatments and higher survival rates for some cancers than others. However, let’s not penalise breast or prostate cancer for having assumed pole position. Instead, let’s aim to have every cancer benefit from the sort of advocacy and marketing that have enabled breast and prostate cancer to successfully mobilise awareness and funds. Our shared goal needs to be that every cancer attains a similar level of success.

Breast cancer is giving back to other cancers, but this is largely ignored or unknown. Herceptin, one of the breast cancer wonder drugs, has proven useful for specific subtypes of ovarian, gastric and pancreatic cancers. Tamoxifen, another wonder drug, and aromatase inhibitors are proven preventative therapies for breast cancer in high risk individuals. Now, there is evidence they can reduce the risk of developing lung cancer. PARP inhibitors, another class of drugs developed for breast and ovarian cancers, are now being trialled in prostate and gastric cancers.

But breast cancer’s success has had an even more profound effect – on the medical research system as a whole. Due to the focus and funding breast cancer has brought to the field, many of the concepts developed in breast cancer are now being applied and yielding benefits across other ‘solid’ cancers: concepts such as the need for tissue banks and targeted therapies. Breast cancer has provided the paradigms for progress. Many researchers who trained in breast cancer are now applying these learned paradigms in melanoma, lung and ovarian cancers.

NBCF is proud to already be funding a number of projects that deliver across not only breast cancer, but other cancers. We are conscious of the position breast cancer has attained after many years of hard work from advocates around the world, and of our moral obligation to share with, and deliver for, other cancers which have not yet attained the same ‘status’. In our 20th anniversary year, we aim to keep delivering for breast cancer – as much work remains to be done – while also driving learnings for those less ‘fortunate’ cancers.

The ultimate expression of ‘cancer envy’ has to be the recent digital campaign from Pancreatic Cancer Action in the UK, “I wish I had breast cancer”. I don’t think so……