Is My Cancer in the Wrong Body Part?

Elaine Waples

Recently, our city hosted the fifth annual national marathon to fight breast cancer.  This is not part of the Komen “race for the cure” but rather a grassroots effort that mushroomed from its inception five years ago into the impressive event it is today. Thousands of people participate as runners,  volunteers, and cheerleaders clad in the signature color.  I must admit, seeing some grown men run twenty six miles wearing pink tu-tus is both awe inspiring and a testament to dedication over self-image.

It’s supporters include corporate sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors, and (no surprise) pharmaceutical companies. Its originators are a local TV celebrity breast cancer survivor and a cancer physician at Mayo clinic. It promises to donate 100% of the money to breast cancer research or care. To date, the event has raised millions of dollars and has met its contribution promise. It’s all very worthy, noble and heartwarming.

So why do I get an embarrassingly annoyed feeling when the pink parade makes its way through my neighborhood? After all, isn’t  it a victory that so many people today recognize the need for education and awareness about a terrible disease that kills 40,000 women a year? Of course it is.  And I have met many women breast cancer survivors who have become warm wonderful friends and I am thrilled for the overwhelming support they have.

The frustration seems even more puzzling in light of the fact that I am a cancer survivor myself. I was diagnosed in 2010 with advanced primary peritoneal ovarian cancer, the most lethal of all gynecological cancers with an alarmingly small overall survival rate. So for the past two years of chemotherapy and difficult treatment, I have struggled to suppress what feels like a petty sentiment about all the pink attention.  If I just own up to it, I feel left out and I really want a parade with everyone wearing teal in support of ovarian research and care. My cancer!  My body part! A cure for me!

I dare say I am not alone.  Surely, people with lung, colorectal, pancreatic, cervical, and brain cancers wonder why there are few (if any) skillfully marketed efforts to win the war on their disease. Can’t we all have nationally publicized races with everybody clad in teal, or white, or yellow, or orange for their personal cancers? Sounds quite egalitarian, but if it ever happened, it would simply exacerbate the existing lopsided bias.  It feels like we’re waging a war in which all the platoons are wandering in different directions in search of the same enemy. A seasoned military leader would scratch his head over that tactic.

So, whats the answer?  Perhaps its the recognition that we are in a new day and time. Science now acknowledges that all cancer, no matter where it nuzzles in, is a disease of cellular mutation and genetic aberration. In its simplest terms, its an orderly process gone haywire.  Unfortunately, despite that fact, the message and the marketing about cancer remains the same. We are schooled to think of it in terms of specific body parts, especially if those body parts can be easily promoted. A T-shirt that says “Save the Colons” isn’t all that charming.

But perhaps we can change the tactic and keep the intent. Science today is developing genomic based treatments that target specific cancer cells.  They are looking at tumor cells that circulate throughout the body, similar cancers that act differently for no apparent reason, and treatments that have broad applications for a wide variety of cancers. This is cutting edge research that correlates specific tumor characteristics to the individual, leading to more effective and certainly more tolerable treatments for all cancer patients. It is a new, exciting, and bigger scientific picture from anything we have known in the decades we have tried and failed to cure this disease.  While we still may not find a cure in the near future, this will allow us to better manage cancer as a disease of the whole body.

Such sentiments do not discount the importance of individual research or question the motives of thousands who participate in the events to raise funds for a specific cancer. They are caring, generous people who are driven to help those in need and spare future generations.  Many of them have a deep personal real life experience.  Perhaps not so much on the vendor and retailer side, but that’s another issue.  Maybe its unrealistic, but wouldn’t  it be wonderful to see more visible united efforts to support research and care for everyone with cancer, regardless of body part? And if we must have a color, then let it be purple, the universal symbol of the disease.  At the very least, we could cheer for a race where all survivors would feel the commitment to them as individuals. On the other hand, I would really love to see my husband in a pink tu-tu.

7 thoughts on “Is My Cancer in the Wrong Body Part?

  1. Elaine,

    Your story is an inspiration. I agree with your point. Breast cancer, which killed my beautiful sister-in-law, is terrible. So is squamous cell cancer which killed my brother. So are all lethal forms of cancer. I do not understand the singular focus on just breast cancer.

    You are a survivor. Bless you. May you have a long, healthy, happy, and productive life.


  2. Elaine,
    Thank you for elegantly expressing what many of us have thought, maybe said, but not written about. I think the recent Komen controversy focused my thoughts on what about all those other cancers? I have always been impressed of what a marketing machine they have developed.

    I am not sure how to change the paradigm but it is worth thinking about. Again, thanks. You an Brian are frequently in my thoughts.

  3. Not often enough, individuals like you Elaine, come along with not only a vision but an ability to articulate sound principals in a fashion that allows many to understand and support. Here, here i say, in support of your broader vision of cancer awareness for all the wicked ways it harms body parts and lives!



  4. Once again, a beautifully and thoughtful piece written from the heart to speak for others and address a serious issue. Your writing is easy and interesting to read for someone like me, and I appreciate your stepping up to the plate to help me understand what is going on. The more these kinds of opinions are expressed, the more the public will understand and see that cancer should not be thought of as body part specific but it is simply cancer, and it can land anywhere.

    My beautiful friend, you are an inspiration to me, and I celebrate that you are fighting the hardest battle that anyone can ever fight in this world. You are not only fighting with grace and dignity, but you are taking the time and care enough about the world to turn the light on in a dark room and show others the truth.

    1. Elaine,
      The simple truth is that you are right. Mixing a nasty disease with Marketing 101 makes for strange bed fellows. Breast cancer is “sexy” and sells. I hope your wwords won’t end with this excellent and spot on essay but find their way to a higher goal: the “purple” war on cancer. Perhaps Brian in a purple tu-tu is a fitting start!

  5. Elaine, You are not only an amazing person but a compelling and articulate in presenting your point of view. I totally agree with and support your purple war. {By the way it is an excellent color choice! I am ready for the parade.} I would love to see your husband in a tutu of any color. I am sure he would gladly don one if he thought it would help. You are a great role model for all of us. Hope to be reading more of your thoughts. Keep up the good fight.

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