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Defending the "I wish I had breast cancer" campaign

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

A battle for awareness

Pancreatic Cancer Action's "I wish I had breast cancer" ad campaign has infuriated many people. Emotions aside, though, the campaign did exactly what it was meant to do by bringing a flood of attention to one of the deadliest cancers in the world.

"I wish I had breast cancer" campaign

Photo credit: Pancreatic Cancer Action

In my time as a social worker on the oncology floor of a large hospital, I was asked to care for individuals and families in the midst of suffering, life and death. All diagnoses, I learned, are grave and frightening for a patient who hears a doctor utter the dreaded words, "You have cancer."

That said, some cancer diagnoses are undoubtedly worse than others. Each type of cancer has its own survival rate and treatment options, which influence whether the patient has a good or poor prognosis. This is why — despite the media's labels of "repugnant," "stunning," "terrible," and "wrong-headed," — I find myself fervently agreeing with Pancreatic Cancer Action's divisive "I wish I had breast cancer" ad campaign.

Dismantling the controversy

Many media outlets, cancer organizations and patients themselves have taken issue with the campaign's use of "cancer envy" as its thesis. The campaign features pancreatic cancer patients stating that they wish they'd been diagnosed with other forms of cancer that carry a better prognosis. These statements have been called insensitive and divisive.

But here's the thing: Even if these candid remarks are insensitive, they have some serious merit. Consider the following facts:

  • Pancreatic cancer has the worst survival rate of all cancers, and its survival rate has not improved for over 40 years.
  • The five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is only 3 percent.
  • Once diagnosed, the average life expectancy of a pancreatic cancer patient is only 4-6 months.
  • Pancreatic cancer is almost never caught in time for potentially-life-saving surgical treatment because its symptoms are vague and often missed.
  • It's frighteningly common. The American Cancer Society estimates 46,420 new cases will occur in the U.S. this year.

While all cancer diagnoses are serious, more common cancers, like breast or even lung cancer, simply have a better overall prognosis than pancreatic cancer. By leveraging a controversial ad campaign, Pancreatic Action Center has brought long-overdue attention to one of the deadliest diseases out there.

Playing the awareness game

Like it or not, awareness is the name of the game when it comes to cancer treatment and prognosis. You can't fault an organization with a key goal of "awareness" for generating exactly that. So why did the Pancreatic Action Center feel the need to bring awareness to the disease?

  • Awareness increases symptom recognition. Can you name the common symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer? If not, then you might miss out on early intervention and medical care that could increase longevity. Awareness helps busy people stay on top of their symptoms and seek treatment if something is amiss.
  • Awareness assists with diagnosis. Patients are their own best advocates, but only when they know what to watch out for and how to screen themselves. For instance, women know to complete breast self-exams once monthly, visit their doctors annually for breast checks and undergo mammograms starting at age 40. Women only do these self-care activities because they're aware that breast cancer is a problem.
  • Awareness funnels cash to the problem. Whether it's fair or not, public awareness of a disease will usually translate into additional funding for current and future patients. Charitable giving for pancreatic cancer currently lags far behind more common cancers like breast and prostate.

You can't fault Pancreatic Cancer Action for using a compelling and controversial ad to increase visibility of the disease. The Huffington Post reported that traffic to the organization's website increased 200 percent following the campaign, and those visitors were met with information about pancreatic cancer symptoms. While it's unfortunate that people felt riled by the ads, it appears that the organization did its job by providing important information about a deadly disease to a mostly-uneducated public.

More on cancer awareness

10 Most common cancers in the U.S.
Headbands of Hope
Skin cancer: 5 Warning signs


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