There has been quite a bit in the news lately about women's cancers, so I thought I would chip in some thoughts.
Firstly, breast cancer. This month's Breast Cancer Awareness Month has coincided with the announcement that women's life expectancy from diagnosis with breast cancer has risen dramatically.
Of course this is good news. It may not be as good news as the headlines suggest, though. Some of the statistical rise comes from the fact that many cases are diagnosed earlier. So even if a woman dies at the same time, her "life expectancy from diagnosis" would be recorded as longer.
But amid the celebrations, the government still has an appalling policy that younger women will not be routinely screened (despite the fact that breast cancer in younger women is usually more aggressive), and women with breast cancer are having to fight for access to 'wonder drug' Herceptin.
Why? Money. The much-lauded increase in NHS spending seems to be able to find its way into the coffers of private companies, but less so into the treatment of patients.
Secondly, cervical cancer - and the recent announcement of a highly effective vaccine. Apparently, it vaccinates against the particular virus (HPV) that is transmitted by sexual contact. Which means that it needs to be administered to girls (and boys) before they become sexually active. Which, of course, has sent the Moral(ist) Minority into a frenzy of objections.
What's the thinking here? That teenage sex is so immoral that girls who do it should be punished by death by cancer?!? As Katha Pollitt asks, "What is it with these right-wing Christians? Faced with a choice between sex and death, they choose death every time. No sex ed or contraception for teens, no sex for the unwed, no condoms for gays, no abortion for anyone".
The right-wing campaigners would probably argue that providing the vaccine will "encourage" teenagers to have sex. I never thought of a vaccination as a particularly erotic thing, and there is plenty of other stuff eg. hormones, that encourage youngsters to have sex. What teenagers definitely need is help and support in having safer sex.
There has long been a problem with sexual moralism inhibiting the fight against cervical cancer. A couple of anecdotes about young women I used to know:
- S. had an abnormal smear test result. She was distraught, thought it was her fault for smoking and having sex. She would normally turn to her mum about any health or personal problem, but felt she could not in this case. (Follow-up tests were clear.)
- L. asked her GP whether it was true that girls who smoke are more likely to get cervical cancer. His reply? "It's not so much girls who smoke as the sort of girls who smoke"!
Medical knowledge of the causes of cancer is limited (perhaps because much of the research is left to charities and profit-motivated pharmaceutical companies). One upshot of this is that any kind of link gets an emphasis above its proportion.
Cervical cancer may be linked to early/promiscuous sex and to smoking, but this link can be exaggerated to an extent that blames and distresses women and unbalances the campaign against this disease. And even where the link does exist, anti-sex crusading is going to hinder, not help, women's health.