October 30, 2017/Opinion

Breast Cancer Awareness Doesn’t End in October

Importance of breast cancer advocacy and action year round

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Members of Cleveland Clinic’s breast cancer team wear pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

By Jame Abraham, M.D.
Director of Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center’s Breast Oncology Program
Co-Director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program

My patient Jackie, 39 years old, was alone for her visit but on a mission. Bald, she never wore a cap or bandana. Her big black eyes, were full of strength and joy. “I think I’ve grown some fuzzy hair in the past two weeks,” she said as she ran her fingers over her beautiful round head. I felt her head, agreed and said, “This is it, your last chemo.” I congratulated her, told her how proud of her I was and expressed the difficulty she endured during her course of treatment.

While acknowledging her achievement and success she paused a moment, and said, “Next month is October. That month can be really hard for me.” She explained that ever since losing her sister to cancer three years ago, and battling her own diagnosis, the daily breast cancer awareness reminder during October brings both joy and sadness. She, like so many others, do not need a reminder. “The flood of good memories and the emotional overload of the bad; it’s overwhelming.”

She, like all my patients, their families and support systems, and the team of medical professionals I work with each and every day understand that breast cancer is not a one-month endeavor. We don’t simply wear pink during October, but rather, we remember breast cancer and those we’ve lost, those we’re fighting to save, and those who will be diagnosed in the future, each and every day. For many people, breast cancer awareness begins on October 1st and ends on October 31st. But for millions, like Jackie and myself, it never ends!

Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center breast cancer team wears pink
Members of Cleveland Clinic’s breast cancer team wear pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Jackie and I discussed the emotional burden of a cancer diagnosis year round mixed with the gratitude and appreciation related to awareness campaigns. We acknowledged that the intent to promote breast cancer awareness and increase screenings by mammogram is important and it never hurts to communicate.

But the pink ribbon does more than increase awareness. It is a case study for how advocacy can play a key role in funding research. People see pink, they hear and read patient and survivor stories. They pay attention to the mammogram reminder. The cycle of screening, early detection, and treatment persists. I am very thankful for that. It leads to advocacy and action.

This cooling cap device helped Jennifer go through chemo without losing her hair while she fought #breastcancer. https://t.co/KxlthVbmsz pic.twitter.com/4dCs6CeZDp

— Cleveland Clinic (@ClevelandClinic) October 26, 2017

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Over the past 16 years as a breast cancer doctor, I’ve had the unique privilege and honor to enter into the lives of thousands of mothers, daughters, and sisters in one of the most painful moments in their life. It is a calling and an honor – one that I do not take lightly. During those 16 years, the women and I battle breast cancer, every day.

I frequently travel back and forth now between the U.S and India, where I attended medical school and where the public acceptance of cancer and the taboo of a cancer diagnosis are glaringly different. During my travels, I am reminded of the strength of pink in October and am thankful for the power of public advocacy. Public advocacy increases awareness, breaks the taboo of cancer diagnosis, and creates a national dialogue.

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We can use all the help we can get. Yet I know we have a long way to go. Still nearly 40,000 sisters, daughters and mothers lose their life to breast cancer each year in the U.S. Nearly half a million will succumb to this diagnosis every year, world wide. That is too many. We have work to do.

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