Breast cancer is not the leading cause of death in American women (that would be heart disease). It's not even the leading cancer cause of death (that would be lung cancer; breast cancer ranks second).
Yet to judge from the many pink-themed events and products devoted to this, Breast Cancer Awareness month, it may well be the leading cause of disease-related activism.
Is it because we live in a culture where breasts are equated with sexuality, motherhood and all that is feminine? Is it because we overestimate the risk that cancer poses, and underestimate the risks of eating too much, moving too little, driving too fast and failing to do enough for the poor, the young and the frail?
But much as my eyes roll at the more creative promotions (Purina Cat Chow's "Cat Nap for the Cause,'' anyone?), I'm a fan of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Critics who say there's too much emphasis on breast cancer at the expense of other health problems make an excellent point, and I'll get back to that. But what I like about this month is that not so long ago, nobody was supposed to talk about cancer of any kind, and breast cancer was viewed with particular horror. That's no longer the case, and if a deluge of pink is the price, I'll pay it.
About 15 years ago, I went to North Carolina for a very strange Christmas with my family. Mom spent the whole time verging on tears, but insisted everything was just great.
Minutes after I got home to Florida, the phone rang. It was Mom. She said she had breast cancer, but didn't want to ruin Christmas by talking about it.
So you can see why I'm all for demystifying this topic.
Especially because along with awareness has come action. Breast cancer death rates have declined; scientists differ over whether that's due to better treatment or screening, but they're down. Actually, my mother's doctors knocked out her cancer with such dispatch, she joked that it was the best disease she ever had. We lost her a few years later, but to an unrelated condition.
Which brings me to my next point: No matter what side of the great mammogram debate you take — Start them at 40? 50? Do them every year? — it's clear that mammograms on their own won't save your life.
Sure, go see your doctor and get a prescription for a mammogram. But while you're there, make sure you get the full treatment — weight, blood pressure, blood and urine tests, plus whatever your own risk factors require. Get the results, and get in gear. As you'll see in the story on Page 15, you have a lot of power over your own health.
I love the fact that so many breast cancer awareness events involve running, walking, cycling and yoga. Not only do these promote camaraderie, they help make the point that fighting cancer isn't just about raising money, it's also about living healthfully.
Fact is, we are a lot more than any single body part — even our breasts.
Let this Breast Cancer Awareness Month be the one that inspires all of us to take a top-to-toe look at ourselves, and consider if we're just tying on ribbons, or taking lifesaving action.