Purpletober. Let’s have a purple-out. It doesn’t quite have the same magical ring to it. And yet, for the estimated 48,000 people who faced a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2015, purple is their color. They’re stuck with it, like it or not, in a sea of pink that celebrates the survivorship and awareness of breast cancer patients and alienates other cancer patients struggling with a deadly disease that, in the end, ravages the body regardless of the originating organ. It doesn’t seem to discriminate.
Humans, on the other hand, tend to discriminate. Pancreases aren’t sexy. But pancreatic cancer is just as vicious as breast cancer: 80% of those diagnosed with the disease will die within 1 year. 94% will die within 5 years. Pancreatic cancer has an extremely high mortality rate, yet we don’t devote an entire month to its awareness. We don’t sell purple tacos and purple hammers and purple ribbons for people to wear. We don’t put purple plastic animals on people’s front lawns. Why?
Some would argue that the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is greater. A woman stands a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime (a rate that has actually increased since the 1970s, although whether this is due to greater detection or greater risk is debatable) and there were an estimated 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2015 . But the estimated death toll? 40,290. Roughly the same as pancreatic cancer.
So why aren’t we celebrating Purpletober?
We like winners and fighters. A disease that claims 94% of its victims within 5 years doesn’t leave much fodder for television commercials and survivor dinners. It’s a real downer. And pancreases still aren’t sexy.
I sympathize with cancer patients and do not want to belittle their victories: having spent 11 excruciating days with my father in the hospital, I know it’s an ugly, ugly disease. I would have loved to have him here with me today to celebrate his survival. But had he lived, his victory would be my family’s to celebrate, not some corporation’s to leverage for profit. I wish the same personal victories to all other cancer patients out there.
And pancreases will never be sexy. The pancreas is a slimy little organ that hides out behind the stomach and helps regulate blood sugar. It doesn’t do anything to flatter the figure, nor is it the exclusive property of women (neither is breast cancer, although we sometimes forget that fact).
Pancreatic cancer manifests in ways that are sneaky and scary and unforgiving. Early detection, when possible, doesn’t do a whole lot for saving lives. Sometimes, as in my father’s case, cancer is detected when a patient has complications with diabetes–a sad case of the diagnosed disease being merely a symptom of a much more serious problem.
We are never going to know everything about every disease out there. Life is too short for that and, frankly, should be a balance of the good and the evil that come our way. However, when we continue to devote an entire 31 out of 365 days each year to a marketing campaign that focuses on soundbites about 1 of more than 100 kinds of known cancers in our world, we may be missing the point a bit.