Along with traditional autumnal colors of orange, red and yellow – pink is also becoming a standard color of fall. Throughout the month of October, the pink ribbon marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a ubiquitous sight in the media, in retail outlets, and on survivors and sympathizers – calling attention to the toll breast cancer takes on our society. The effort to raise funds and educate women on breast cancer is a lifesaving one, indeed, but many women believe that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women. It’s not – each year, lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women. In 2011, about 31,000 more women will die from lung cancer than from breast cancer. Those statistics aside – breast cancer touches more lives, while lung cancer takes more lives; and the sad reality is that too many American women are suffering and dying from either disease. Tobacco use is firmly connected to lung cancer; for breast cancer, we do not yet know the extent of the connection, if any.
Consider some recent headlines: “Smoking May Be Associated With Increased Risk of Breast Cancer” and “Smoking Increases Risk of Breast Cancer in Postmenopausal Women, Study Shows.” In August, another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that smoking increases the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women, but only among non-obese women. In contrast to many other diseases and despite many studies with large samples, there is currently no consensus on how firm a link there is between smoking and breast cancer. Furthermore, in the past, studies that appeared to have shown a link between tobacco use and breast cancer have not been replicated. In the absence of this continuing body of scholarship, there continues to be a divide in opinion about the breast cancer and tobacco use link, or the extent of that link.
According to the American Cancer Society annual analysis, this year, among U.S. women, there will be more than 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer, and more than 39,000 breast cancer deaths. A disease with that kind of sweeping impact affects too many of our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. Year after year, science continues to conclude links between tobacco use and ailments and conditions throughout the body. Until the science firmly concludes whether tobacco use and breast cancer are related, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to push for further funding and further research until a consensus is clear.