Combating Breast Cancer

October 26, 1992

Before Congress adjourned this month, it approved more than $400 million for breast cancer research this fiscal year -- the most generous funding yet for research into a disease that kills 46,000 Americans a year. It is also a significant increase over the $158 million budgeted last year. In contrast, the annual federal research budget for AIDS, a contagious disease: $1.2 billion.

But those favoring increased funding for breast cancer research owe a debt to AIDS activists. Their tireless lobbying -- and sometimes controversial tactics for drawing attention to AIDS issues -- has shown that clamoring for attention sometimes works. A great deal of credit for the budget appropriations, as well as for other congressional actions related to breast cancer, goes to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, the first nationwide advocacy group for people with the disease.

For too many years, federal dollars have supported research projects that concentrate solely on male physiology. Much current thinking about the causes and treatment of heart disease, for instance, is based on studies that included no women at all -- though after age 60, women are as likely to develop heart disease as men. Moreover, when the National Institutes of Health began research into aging, it spent 20 years studying only men -- though two-thirds of the elderly are women.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the cause has a new symbol -- pink ribbons. The goal: a surge in awareness of the disease and heightened efforts to combat it.

A new program in Maryland aims to do just that by providing free mammograms for about 15,000 low-income women who cannot pay for them. The effort would also include any follow-up diagnostic services -- such as a sonogram or surgical biopsy -- for a maximum charge of $45. Mammograms can detect cancer in its earliest stages when treatments stand the best chance of success.

One out of nine women will develop breast cancer if she lives to be 85. More alarming is that even as instances of the disease have increased, there's been no significant improvement in the survival rate. A yearly death toll of 46,000 lives demands a stepped up war on breast cancer.

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