Friday 18 February 2011

What 40,000 people are doing this week

New Year resolutions are a distant memory for most of us (OK maybe just me) but for about 40,000 people, training for the Virgin London Marathon (Sunday 17 April) is in full gallop. As someone for whom walking 26 miles in one day was a real challenge a couple of years ago, the thought of running that distance is unthinkable so I am in total admiration of anyone who does it.

Every year we have many volunteers and some staff who take on this challenge and we provide support in a number of ways, and those of us who don’t, won’t or can’t run go along on the day to cheer them along. If you have a place and want to run for us, join the Breast Cancer Campaign All Stars team.

Two of my frustrations in life are that I cannot hold a tune and cannot draw anything – not even well enough to entertain very small grandchildren. It hasn’t stopped me loving music and painting. I haven’t queued for hours for many things but until the art galleries introduced booking online for art exhibitions, queuing to get into an exhibition was one of them. We even travelled to The Netherlands for a weekend in order to see the Vermeer exhibition at The Hague a few years ago. The paintings are small and perfect and it was dreadfully crowded but still worth it. Of course, thanks to Tracy Chevalier who wrote the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, which became an Oscar-nominated film in 2003, that painting is now familiar to a much wider public.

We are very excited that Tracy will join thousands of runners in the Virgin London Marathon to support us this year. She is running in support of several friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in recent years. I think what she has said echoes the views of so many who take on these extraordinary challenges. “At times I have felt helpless in the face of what they have gone through. I decided that running the London Marathon for Breast Cancer Campaign was one concrete way that I could help to raise money and awareness. I’ve never run a marathon before so it will be a big challenge but one that I’m ready for, if it helps others affected by breast cancer.”

I think I will now go back and reread the book and wait for her next one – a novel about an English Quaker woman who helps runaway slaves escape from Ohio to Canada in the 1840s.

Friday 4 February 2011

Breast cancer is a disease not a punishment

There has been blanket coverage of the publication of new statistics on breast cancer in the UK. There are statistics, interpretation of statistics and news stories and sometimes the latter wins out over the former.

I am always nervous of certainty without evidence. They were certain that the earth was flat, that smoking was harmless and that a radical mastectomy was the only way to treat breast cancer. None of those is true and we have the evidence to prove it.

The facts in this case are that there are more cases of breast cancer being diagnosed now than before – around 48,000; age is still the biggest risk factor for breast cancer – 81 per cent of women diagnosed were 50 and older and more women are surviving longer after treatment.

Increase in the numbers diagnosed is part of a trend and we have some ideas why this might be happening: there has been a partial extension of the screening programme from 50 to 47 and from 70 to 73; the number of women going for screening is going up and we are living longer.

Apart from a genetic predisposition to breast cancer which is between 5 – 10 per cent of all cases there is no identified cause. I use the word cause advisedly because a risk factor is not a cause. There are various risk factors which probably contribute to this and these have been well aired in the media – women are having fewer children and having them later and not all are breastfeeding; increasing levels of obesity and less physical activity and links with regular consumption of alcohol be it binge drinking or a couple of glasses of wine every night.

These are risk factors and while turning into some sort of breeding machine and breast-feeding until pregnant again is not an option - reducing alcohol consumption, increasing exercise and controlling your weight are lifestyle changes you can make (and your overall health will be much better!). None of these in themselves will cause breast cancer but neither are you “protected” if you are teetotal, run marathons and are as slim as a reed.

There are many reasons why survival is improving – screening leading to earlier diagnosis and better treatments (thanks to research done in the past – so keep supporting research!).

I am all in favour of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, one’s own health and one’s own life. But in the end this is a disease not a punishment and we need to understand better why breast cancer happens in the first place (and therefore whether we could prevent it), why it spreads to other parts of the body and why some people respond well to treatment and others don’t. Of course I would say this but research has led to longer survival and less damaging treatments but the need is no less pressing.