When the HIV epidemic first begain in the early 1980’s, most people took the typical “it wont happen to me” stance. Of course, back then HIV was thought to be only a disease of homosexuals, prostitutes, and drug users. When it became clearer that HIV was not just a disease of certain groups of individuals, people began to get scared. I’m sure some of you remember the shock people had when Princess Diana hugged dying AIDS patients. Efforts then began to focus on prevention because there was no cure for the disease and a limited number of drugs that could extend the life of the AIDS patient.
Then the era of HAART therapy came to be and people began taking life prolonging therapy. Patients who would have died years earlier were living full healthy lives. In fact, now the average person with HIV is likely to die from the same things the average American is susceptible…heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc.
And once people realized that AIDS was no longer a death sentence, things changed again. Prevention and protection fell to the way side, and rates of HIV as well as other sexually trasmitted diseases are cropping up again in the same communities where the epidemic started.
Which brings me to breast cancer.
No other cancer affects more women in the United States than breast cancer. It is the #1 diagnosed cancer in American women. Certainly everyone in America knows someone affected by breast cancer. Some current prominent examples include Elizabeth Edwards, Melissa Ethridge, and Robyn Roberts (from Good Morning America). Thankfully, breast cancer is not the most common cancer killer of women; that dubious distinction belongs to lung cancer.
The facts are these: for the vast majority of women, breast cancer is an easily detectable and a treatable disease with excellent cure rates when caught early. Certainly there are more aggressive forms and certainly there are cancers that are not detected until it is too late. Science and medicine have done an astonishing job at increasing survivability following a breast cancer diagnosis. Research is continually evolving to produce newer and better chemotherapeutic agents to battle breast cancer.
Having just concluded National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is amazing to see the amount of support that has developed around this disease. No other disease in America can claim to have more money surrounding it than breast cancer. Breast cancer has moved beyond the pink ribbon, a brilliant marketing ploy in its own right, to jewelry, clothing, and food products (the pink ribbon bagel at Panera Bread, anyone?). Women have done a fantastic job of marketing their disease and garnering support for a cure. If you haven’t been living in a cave or under a rock for the past month, you’ve certainly run into something pink.
So what’s my point and what does this have to do with HIV? In light of all the support that has gone into breast cancer research and treatment, a shocking statistic shows that more and more women are opting to not have mammograms. Mammograms. The one and ONLY tool that has been proven to effectively screen for breast cancer. Thousands of American women are now choosing to not have the test that could detect the tiniest lump within their breasts, the one test that may catch the cancer at it’s smallest stage, offering the best chance for a cure.
To me, this seems to parallel HIV. At a time when living with breast cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be, more and more women are gambling with their lives.