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Breast Cancer

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October means many things for different people: school has started to settle for parents and students, others are excited by Hallowe’en candy, and winter is at the doorstep as per the current weather here in Montréal. For me, I also note that the month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I feel grateful for my health and think about the many families that are impacted by diseases such as breast cancer. As I young child, I knew how the diagnosis of breast cancer can shake a family as my mother was diagnosed with the disease at a young age. After battling cancer for eleven years she succumbed to the illness more than a decade ago.

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It was around midnight when I saw The New York Times’ Twitter feed linked to an article on its opinion page about Angelina Jolie. It read: “Angelina Jolie on why she had a double mastectomy, and how it could save lives.” I clicked on the link.

Reading Jolie’s explanation of her recent decision to undergo a double mastectomy — as a preventative measure against breast cancer — was fuzzy late at night. I had been engrossed in my school work and holding late night vigils in the glow of my laptop, eyes at half mast but open from the effects of too much coffee. Jolie wrote about how, in 2007, her mother died of cancer after a ten-year battle. Jolie had then decided to become tested for the genetic mutation that substantially increases the risk of the carrier of developing breast cancer. The tests confirmed that she did indeed carry a gene mutation and in her case, she had approximately 87% chance of developing the disease. She completed her series of preventative medical procedures and surgeries in April.

Well, both myself and the rest of the world had not been privy to Jolie’s health circumstances until the publishing of her article. For a Hollywood actress and paparazzi magnet such as Jolie, her private life and medical decision had been very carefully under wraps. But she chose to write a public and very moving account of her medical counselling and surgery through her own words and terms. Her article is clear in that her motives are not to broadcast circumstances of her non-acting life to the world but to spark a discussion on women’s health, breast cancer, and cancer prevention.

Jolie’s article comes two days after Mother’s Day was celebrated here in Canada and many other nations abroad. I had sent a message to a friend now living in Hong Kong to wish her a happy first Mother’s Day, then enquired about whether Mother’s Day is actually celebrated in that part of the world. It was, in fact, and her husband took her and their infant son to Hong Kong Disneyland. I laughed at the photo she sent to me of her and her family posing with Mickey Mouse.

On Sunday I was and still am away from my family in Toronto, and spent the day here in Montréal with my head in my books. But I thought about my mother who passed away when I was twenty years old after battling cancer for eleven years. It also happened that I saw a breast cancer surgeon a few days earlier because, as I explained to my boyfriend, it was time again to have old doctor hands feel my boobs in ways no one else has ever felt my boobs.

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We are already half way through November, or for the boys, Movember. I imagine many moustaches are on their way to prime condition.

November means another month and another cancer awareness campaign after October’s Pink Ribbon Campaign. However, since the major controversies surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation in the past year, these cancer charity marketing initiatives have been under the microscope and subject to much backlash.

Last month, Margaret Wente’s commentary in The Globe and Mail regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month carried the exasperated title, “Can We Just Relax About our Breasts?” Ms. Wente posits that the problem with breast cancer awareness is due to the “fear, hysteria and paranoia that people have whipped up around breasts.” She cites “chemophobia” as fuelling “imaginary risks” surrounding breast cancer, and points to Florence Williams’ book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History as an example of this hysteria.

A few days after Ms. Wente’s article came another submission in The Globe and Mail, this time regarding Movember. Author Amberly McAteer wrote, “[Does] asking people to do something as silly as grow hair trivialize the real, scary issues the Movember movement is trying to elevate?” She also mentioned knowing a few men in the past year who grew Movember moustaches but did not participate in raising any funds for the charity.

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[Photo: rue McGill College, Montréal]

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month here in North America, and this year the pink ribbon is a little tattered.

First, the Susan G. Komen Foundation controversy in the United States brought the issues of breast cancer and charity operations to the forefront. Soon after other contentious charitable breast cancer initiatives came to light, including the recent revelations that the NFL’s pink ribbon efforts only net 5% of proceeds to charity. I have closely followed these particular news items with interest, partially in terms of the debate on the politics of these embroilments, but also in terms of the topics as women’s health issues. I know the public debates on the controversies have been quite lively in the Internet sphere, and many young women joined in the discussion on women’s sites like Jezebel. However, I wondered how these efforts of breast cancer education affect these young women’s knowledge of the disease despite their Internet outrage and opining in the pink ribbon controversies.

Breast cancer affects 1 in 9 Canadian women in their lifetime, meaning that many of us have known someone with breast cancer or have otherwise been personally affected by the disease. Since my family member’s first diagnosis when I was a child, I became interested in learning more about breast cancer and decreasing my risks in developing the disease. However, it seems that many young women are not aware about the risks and symptoms of breast cancer despite the massive efforts at education and involvement. I feel that this is akin to the behaviours of many young people regarding their risks of sexually transmitted infections (STI) — despite massive efforts at public education, many are kind of aware, many are kind of taking steps to prevents transmission, and many are kind of getting tested. STI’s are a much more of an immediate threat for most young people than breast cancer, but breast cancer is a specific risk to women with a very high risk of occurrence during their lifetime. Therefore, I wanted to write this post as, from talking to my friends, it is clear that many young women are not well informed about breast cancer and how certain lifestyle factors can impact the risks in developing the disease.

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