The consequences of overly aggressive cancer awareness campaigns


We live today in an environment with a very high level of focus on cancer awareness — particularly for breast, prostate, and skin cancers, but also for other forms of cancer like lung cancer and colon cancer. But do we really appreciate some of the consequences of all this “awareness”?

Yesterday, according to a report on MedPage Today, at the annual Breast Cancer Symposium of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Weiss et al. reported data from a survey of  > 3,000 girls from urban areas across America. The study concluded that nearly a third of urban teenagers and young girls are afraid of breast cancer.

The MedPage Today report states that  “fear of breast cancer starts early, as girls see it affect those close to them and hear reports in the media.” The researchers found that nearly a third of teens and ‘tweens’ have “already worried about whether the disease will strike them personally.'”Furthermore, among urban girls of 8 to 18 years of age, “more than 23 percent believed that infection, drug use, stress, and tanning cause breast cancer.”

The researchers commented on two reasons for this level of fear among girls and teenages:

  • 31 percent of the girls reported that someone close to them had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • The girls appeared to be at risk for “misinterpretation of reports in the media designed to warn adult women about their breast cancer risk.”

We have become very good at publicizing prostate cancer risk. However, what we tend to forget is that we are communicating with a much wider audience than our primary target of men aged 40 to 65 years of age who need to be highly conscious of that risk. We are also communicating with their sons, their daughters, and their wives.

The last thing that we need to do is make boys and young men scared of prostate cancer. Scared men will avoid the tests they may need to manage their personal risk or may come to insist (even more than the current generation) on unnecessary and aggressive treatments for low-risk and indolent disease! A scared man is not an “aware” man. He is someone who has been misled about his real clinical risk.

5 Responses

  1. Oh, Mike, you’re a sage and a courageous one at that.

    FYI, campaigns aimed at women urging them to have mammograms backfire on me. They just scare me and make me want to withdraw. Find a good doctor and follow their advice.

  2. Mike,

    Not to worry! Boys and young men remain uninformed. They are as bulletproof as ever while they watch football games and ignore the risk of prostate cancer. Not hard to understand given the mixed message that … “Prostate cancer is an old man’s disease and most men die with prostate cancer and not from it.”

  3. Mike,

    I don’t think that we can compare what happens with breast cancer awareness to prostate cancer awareness. Pink is everywhere in October and breast cancer awareness is the darling of many while on the other hand prostate cancer comparatively gets very little coverage. There are very few negative messages about breast cancer screening while there are many negative messages about early detection and they do not differentiate about at risk populations. There are breast cancer government programs that support at risk populations while there are few similar programs for prostate cancer and they are decreasing because of the ongoing controversy about prostate cancer early detection. CDC has been withdrawing awareness funds for years. ACS does not see prostate cancer as a priority. I don’t think we need to worry about prostate cancer awareness reaching the level of breast cancer awareness in the near future. There needs to be balance and right now breast cancer is over exposed.

  4. As things currently stand, unless you’ve lost a close family member, the fear doesn’t start until you’re diagnosed. Then you have to figure out if you are more afraid of the disease or the treatment.

    Women pay more attention to reproductive health-related matters. For years, the only doctor my wife saw was her OB/GYN, and I don’t think that’s very uncommon. Their education starts at a young age.

    Young men need to be educated about prostate cancer just like other diseases that they may have to face in the course of their lifetime. Too bad that we don’t know more so that the truth could be told simply and plainly!

  5. With such conflicting information about prostate cancer screening and the consistently promoted idea that it’s “an old man’s disease,” I’m afraid we’ll see in the years to come more younger men being diagnosed with advanced disease because they saw no need to treat this “docile” disease. This result will remain statistical for most, until it’s your husband, son, or grandson whose life is affected. I agree with Ralph … no need to worry, boys and young men are uninformed.

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