Making it an issue

January 11, 1991

The statistics are getting personal: When breast cancer strikes one in 10 American women, virtually everyone knows someone who has been affected by the disease. Breast cancer survival rates are rising, but so is the number of cases. Why this epidemic? Scientists aren't sure, and at current funding levels for research many more thousands of people will die before they can offer answers.

Yet a number of factors are converging to call more attention to the breast cancer epidemic. Increasing numbers of well-known women -- from Nancy Reagan to Gloria Steinem -- are speaking out about their own experience with the disease. Increasingly, women's groups across the political spectrum are taking up issues related to breast cancer.

Women have some lessons to learn from the AIDS lobby. AIDS, which killed more than 23,000 Americans last year, had a federal 1990 research budget of $1.1 billion. Meanwhile, federal funding for breast cancer was just $77 million -- even though more than 43,000 Americans died of the disease. The point is not that AIDS research should be cut; after all, it is a contagious disease with the potential to claim hundreds of thousands of lives. Rather, as Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, says, the important question is, if we can do it for AIDS, why can't we do it for women?

There is important breast cancer research waiting for federal funding. Meanwhile, it's critical to educate women about the need for early detection and for bringing early detection within reach of more women by continuing to expand insurance coverage for mammograms. Medicare has just begun covering mammograms; that's a start. Additionally, there is an urgent need to make sure those mammograms are accurate; legislation pending in Congress would establish badly needed federal regulations to ensure the quality of such tests.

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