“I Wish I Had Breast Cancer” — Really?

Pancreatic Cancer Action, an organization based in the UK, launched an awareness campaign last month with a very provocative message.

"I wish I had breast cancer."

I wish I had breast cancer

We are sad to report that the young woman featured above, 24-year-old Kerry Harvey, succumbed to her disease last weekend, less than one year following her diagnosis. We at SHARE are all-too familiar with the ravages of all cancers and extend our sympathy to all those who knew her.

By lending her name and face to the campaign, we assume Ms. Harvey hoped to draw attention to her disease. Sadly, she is no longer here to promote her cause. This haunting image remains, however, as does the controversy it ignited.

For those of you who follow Twitter, this is not a surprise. Tweets from the breast cancer community were fast and furious. Xeni Jardin, who writes for the blog Boing Boing, tweeted,

Some of you asked my opinion on a pancreatic cancer org's ad campaign: I think it's dumb, cruel, insensitive to pit 1 cancer against another

From the HuffPost's Seporah Raizer, a woman diagnosed with metastatic disease, the response was also critical. In an essay entitled, "Cancer is not a Competition," she writes:

Breast cancer is no walk in the park…. There's a whole bunch of us living with breast cancer that is beyond a cure…. We live with pain and sickness both physical and mental. We fight for a "normal" life while knowing our cancer can wipe everything away in a second.

Was the ad, in fact, in bad taste? Whatever you think, it is undeniable that it brought to the forefront the seriousness of pancreatic cancer -- a disease where only 3 percent of those diagnosed are alive five years later. In response to the media uproar, Pancreatic Cancer Action admitted that they hoped to create a discussion that would bring more research dollars to the cause. We wish them success whether or not we endorse their strategy.

From where we sit, however, the perspective is different. We think, however unintentionally, it shows how little most people know about a disease we know very well: breast cancer. If you are familiar only with pink ribbons, rubber bracelets and smiling women walking for a cure, you too might regard breast cancer as "curable" and "beatable" and easily-detected by advanced screening methods. 

Fortunately, for some women (even most), this is true. For too many others, the reality is very different. Between 20 and 30 percent of breast cancers progress and ultimately metastasize with no cure in sight. Drugs are toxic, making treatment difficult and collateral damage a reality. Has there been progress? Undoubtedly, but for women with late stage disease it is maddeningly slow as they try to digest that today's research may not save their lives.

Perhaps the breast cancer community has inadvertently sanitized the message to mask our very own reality. Too many women suffer the same fate as Kerry Harvey. Their pictures, like hers, would expose a sad and cruel fate. Like Kerry, we must not be afraid to look them in the eye and include them in our message.

May this ad campaign lift the veil on ALL cancers and raise research dollars for all those diagnosed with these devastating diseases.