"Save the ta-tas." The bumper sticker glared back at me as I made my morning commute to work as a breast cancer researcher, as if I needed reminding that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. These days, I'm seeing the iconic pink ribbon plastered on any and all "woman-friendly" products, from pink frying pans to my face lotion -- even on my favorite bottle of grocery store wine.
Of course, breast cancer is not the number one killer of women -- it's heart disease. Nor is it the number two killer of women in the United States -- that's lung cancer. Breast cancer is the third leading disease killer of women in the United States. Breast cancer claimed the lives of 39,510 women last year, while about 267,000 died from heart attacks and 73,660 died from lung cancer. October is also domestic violence awareness month -- at least 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime (compared to an 1 in 8 lifetime risk for breast cancer) -- but I bet you didn't learn that in your grocery store checkout line. Women face many bigger health threats, yet breast cancer is one of the most researched, well-funded, highly advocated and commercialized diseases in history. Why has this disease garnered so much national attention? Is it really about saving women, or, as that bumper sticker suggests, is it more about saving breasts?
Breast cancer is typically presented as a "sexy" disease, one that affects young women's bodies, even though 95% of new breast cancer cases occur in women 40 years or older, and the median age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 61. A PSA by Rethink Breast Cancer that hit airwaves in 2009 featured a young woman in a bikini prancing around a pool. After a few lustful glances from the men poolside, the text appears: "You know you like them. Now it's time to save the boobs." For years now, longtime NYC shock jock Howard Stern has used breast cancer awareness month to perform breast exams on sexy models over the airwaves. The Keep a Breast Foundation's slogan, which they print on T-shirts and colorful plastic bracelets, is "I [heart] Boobies!"