For more than two decades, monochromatic emblems have been all the rage in cancer survival and advocacy. From pink to gold and purple to gray, we have displayed our commitment to raise awareness of specific cancers and end one or another form of the dreaded disease.
But some have begun to question the tunnel vision we sometimes bring to what should be a collective conversation about a continuum of diseases that killed more than half a million Americans last year alone. I shared this concern with many of my fellow participants in the Scientist-Survivor Program at the American Association for Cancer Research's annual meeting this month. They included cancer survivors, family members and caregivers, and seasoned advocates for research and funding.
We would like to reconsider our reasons for holding on to specific tokens of allegiance — the colored ribbons, wristbands, and other symbolic weapons for combating cancers of the lung, colon, skin, etc. — as well as whether it might be time to let go of them, or at least loosen our grip. Drawing on the perspectives of researchers who believe they're inching closer to being able to control and possibly halt cancer altogether, we think it's in everyone's best interests to adopt a more unified approach to racing, shopping, standing up, or speaking out for a cure.
It's important first of all to examine what compels us to identify with those with the same type of cancer. When diagnosed, people with cancer are urged to reach out to others in their designated community. Who better to assist with the practicalities of living without a breast, the confusion that often accompanies brain cancer, or the much-needed hope that surviving a little-understood cancer is possible?
From a clinical standpoint, too, the site of cancer's onset frequently continues to be the target of surveillance, reminding us where our troubles began. Repeat mammograms, colonoscopies, bone scans, and blood tests keep us focused on our particular kind of cancer.
But despite the appeal of a community that understands the challenges of one form of cancer, it's worth pondering what strides we might make by broadening our perspectives as survivors and advocates.
In the current economic climate, with research funding increasingly scarce, we find ourselves embroiled in a war among cancers. Pink (breast cancer) warriors face off against teal (ovarian), black (melanoma), gold (childhood cancers), green (kidney), orange (leukemia), purple (pancreatic), and so on. Too often, our voices are constrained by symbols that were intended to empower us.
Based on what we heard from leading scientists and clinicians at this month's meeting, there are plenty of reasons to stop competing for dollars and attention. Scientific inquiry is shifting to the prospects for discovering and exploiting commonalties among cancers, particularly those revealing similar genomic pathways and identifiable mutations. Drugs developed for one cancer (or for a noncancerous disease) are being tested for treating cancers once believed to behave quite differently.
Is there a place in survivorship and advocacy for community-building among those who share a common site of malignancy? Of course. It's impossible to dismiss the distinct ways that specific cancers complicate — and color — our everyday lives, and it's natural to seek connections with survivors who have traveled similar paths.
But we also need to consider what lies beneath our differences, and recognize when we all might benefit from throwing our particular ribbons to the wind.
Cynthia Ryan wrote this on behalf of several participants in the Scientist-Survivor Program. For more information about the American Association for Cancer Research, based in Philadelphia, see www.aacr.org.