One of the major paradoxes of the public discourse around breast cancer is that there are so many awareness campaigns and precious little actual awareness. I will admit that did not know before being diagnosed that chemo renders young women infertile—a devastating dimension of loss for many—or that hormone treatments that deprive the body of estrogen go on for five or ten years. Or that breast cancer that spreads beyond the breast is not curable.
When we see taxis, frying pans, cosmetics, even NFL players’ cleats swathed in bubble-gum tones, one could be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is “no big deal” anymore. That we’ve got it all solved. A pink ribbon like a badge of honor over your lumpectomy scar, some sisterhood cheers and we’re all good. I’ve heard a few people say, “No one dies from breast cancer anymore.”
But there you’d be wrong. Forty thousand women in the U.S. die from breast cancer every year. That’s more than the entire population of the town I grew up in. That’s more than the undergraduate enrollment at the very large UC campuses I attended. That’s many thousands more than total automobile fatalities or gun deaths each year (both statistics hover around 33,000). It’s more than the 38,000 suicides that constitute a major public health crisis. And this 40,000 represents almost entirely women. From where I sit, it feels like a plague.