For Barbie, October is a month to behold. Pink. Pink everywhere. Pink balloons, ribbons, bridges, buildings, and professional sports equipment, all to raise awareness about breast cancer.
The last 25 years have seen the boob slowly edging out the pumpkin as a symbol for fall. With breast cancer so visible, it is interesting to note that last month was prostate cancer awareness month. In September, however, the color blue did not engulf the country in any similar manner — despite claiming a comparable number of victims.
According to estimates from the National Institutes of Health, in the United States in 2010, 207,090 women and 1,970 men will get new cases of breast cancer, while 39,840 women and 390 men will likely die from the disease. The estimated new cases of prostate cancer this year — all affecting men — is 217,730, while it is predicted 32,050 will die from the disease.
Dan Zenka, the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s vice president of communications, says the similarity in numbers is hard to ignore. “Prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women,” he told The Daily Caller.
Breast cancer awareness advocates have done an inspired job getting out word and excitement for their cause. Despite their success, prostate cancer has been left in the dust — both in terms of awareness and federal funding. Case in point, prostate cancer research receives less than half of the funding breast cancer does.
In fiscal year 2009, breast cancer research received $872 million worth of federal funding, while prostate cancer received $390 million. It is estimated that fiscal year 2010 will end similarly, with breast cancer research getting $891 million and prostate cancer research receiving $399 million.
Even when it comes to private foundations, the picture is the same. For example, at the American Cancer Society, breast cancer receives about twice the number of grants as prostate cancer.
Kevin Johnson, the senior vice president of public policy for ZERO-The Project to End Prostate Cancer, chalks much of the disparity up to the differences between men and women, specifically the way each deals with their health concerns. Women, Johnson says, tend to be acutely aware and outspoken about their health concerns, while men shy away from such discussions.
“[Women] have been very vocal about being active in their health care. Men just aren’t like that. Men don’t talk about it,” Johnson told TheDC. “You’ve got to be tougher and everything else. You don’t talk about weaknesses like that.”
“Men don’t put on blue sneakers or blue ribbons; and they don’t run every 5k they can find and I think that has really slowed down the pace of awareness and subsequently the funding,” he said.
Federal funding for prostate and breast cancer research is provided by the Department of Defense Appropriations Bill and grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While NIH divides the money Congress has allocated to them by convening a panel of outside scientists, known as the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), to evaluate research grant applications, politics can come into play in the amount allocated to each disease in the Defense bill. Since women raise their voices louder about their health issues, politicians voting and writing these bills tend to take notice. Men’s silence about their health issues, on the other hand, means less funding.
“The women’s vote in this country is a very important vote for a lot of politicians. So if they’re out there advocating for their cause and you hear from a thousand women in your district about breast cancer, you’re going to care about it a lot more,” Johnson said. “I can produce maybe two or three guys in any given district.”
Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, told TheDC that the fact that there are more researchers who study breast cancer than there are those who look at prostate cancer also has had an affect on the overall money allocation.
”Funding parallels how many people go on clinical trials and we have had numerous attempts to do trials on prostate cancer, but since many urologists do not participate in them, money does not flow into the trials and they get shut down,” Brawley said. “Breast cancer is also thought of as a disease that might be more curable and more treatable, and so young scientists that are thinking about a career actually are drawn toward something that they might make inroads in.”
Despite the disparity, prostate cancer advocates continue to push forward, looking at the successes of their female counterparts. Zenka believes that the movement will get stronger. “We can do better. As I say our sisters in the breast cancer movement have set a wonderful example and that is what we need to meet,” he said.
Laura Donovan contributed to this story.