Winner takes pink; loser gets… nothing?

The Twin Cities will be awash in a pink tide this weekend for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

It’s going to be a big deal. Thousands of people are expected to participate in the events Saturday and Sunday: a 5K race, 5K and 1K walks, a wheelchair race, children’s events, a health expo and a survivor celebration. In Minnesota, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has raised $25 million over the past 15 years, much of which is spent in Minnesota on breast cancer awareness, education, outreach, screening and research.

It’s all well justified. Breast cancer, after all, is the single most common cancer among women in the United States.

But seeing all the hoopla, the pink ribbons and the commercial sponsors climbing onto the bandwagon, I can’t help but wonder how other women – you know, the ones who have cancer other than breast cancer – feel about it. Do they feel left out? Not as worthy of attention? Lonely? Maybe even a little resentful?

This in no way is meant to diminish what it means to have breast cancer. And it’s a genuine accomplishment for women to have raised so much awareness and support for a disease that in the not-so-distant past was seldom publicly addressed.

It’s worth asking, however, whether the breast cancer community, with its sheer numbers and vocal activism, has unwittingly cast a long pink shadow over everyone else.

If you look at the statistics, women with cancer other than breast cancer are frankly a minority, outnumbered on every front. In 2008, an estimated 182,460 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer came next – 100,330 cases among women last year – and colon cancer was third, with 54,310 new cases among women last year.

Look at some of the other cancers that women get: melanoma, 27,530 new cases in 2007. Kidney cancer, 21,260 new cases. Brain tumors, 10,030. Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, 34,490 new cases combined. Pancreas, 18,910.

At the Willmar Cancer Center, breast cancer accounted for 18.3 percent of all cancers diagnosed and/or treated locally in 2007. In fact it is the most common cancer among women that local health providers deal with or treat in some way.

When these are the numbers, it makes sense for cancer-care programs and community projects to target their resources to reach the most people. And that’s what many of them have done: here, for example, here, here and here. Women and their families and friends don’t have to go too far to find information, services and support to help them weigh their treatment options, live well during treatment and afterwards, and promote awareness in their community.

Sadly, however, this often becomes a zero-sum game. There are only so many resources, after all, to go around. There’s only so much money and compassion and awareness to spread around. Inevitably there are gaps, especially for younger women who are in an age group that’s a minority in the cancer world to begin with.

Local statistics in the annual Willmar Cancer Center report aren’t broken down by gender. But of the 13 people who were diagnosed with melanoma or had their first course of treatment for melanoma there in 2007, it would be interesting to know how many of them were women. Ditto for the other statistics. How many of them lived in Kandiyohi County and how many came from farther away? Was there any way they were able to connect locally with other women going through the same thing they were? Did they feel supported by their community?

This isn’t a plea for pouring more money and resources into new or additional services or fancy awareness campaigns. It’s a plea to revise our perspective into something broader.

Cancer is a burdensome disease, no matter who has it or what kind they have. We owe it to the cancer community to be more inclusive, so we don’t unintentionally make the journey harder for some of them than it needs to be.