October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It also marks the five year anniversary of my own diagnosis (making me officially a “cancer survivor”), and while I am of course happy and grateful to still be here, it’s bittersweet for me. You see, during this time I have lost two people extremely close to me, and as I continue to watch others battle the dreaded “C”, it breaks my heart.
I know I’m not alone. There would be very few people who have not witnessed the horrific demise of a loved one through this insidious disease, but it sucks. It really really sucks!
There are some terrific screening programs now to catch cancer in the early stages when it can still be treated. By definition, ‘treated’ means surgically removed, poisoned with chemotherapy and radiated. I can say with authority that all are far from being pleasant experiences, and despite the aggressive attack on the disease the current ‘treatments’ are far from being a true cure.
What irks me most though is the “research”. Cancer is such a frightening word to hear that many people willingly donate to cancer research with the best of intentions, but without much thought, and what they don’t consider is that much of the money is spent on animal experiments. Rats and mice are most often used – despite their anatomic, genetic and metabolic differences to humans. In fact many cancers have already been cured in mice, but they simply don’t work in humans, suggesting that perhaps we should move away from these inappropriate and misleading models of human disease and embrace other more relevant methods of research.
When I was first diagnosed it was of huge concern to me that I would be taking drugs that had been tested on animals. Looking into the drugs I was given though, I learned that the chemotherapy drugs I was to take were discovered around 50 years ago. The logical question then is what has become of all the cancer research since that time and where were all these ongoing promises of cures?
I am currently taking tamoxifen – a common treatment used in breast cancer as it acts as an “anti-oestrogen” drug by blocking the action of oestrogen in breast tissue. However the discovery that this drug could be used to treat cancer was quite serendipitous as it was originally tested as a potential contraceptive. With regards to its current use in breast cancer it has a similar effect (in low doses) in rats and monkeys, but in mice, dogs and rats (in high doses) it actually has the opposite effect, behaving like oestrogen. There are also many differences in the drug’s risk factors and side effects. It is therefore surprising that with such conflicting animal data it ever became available – but I’m very lucky it did!
So I am acknowledging Breast Cancer Awareness Month and appreciate and support the need for greater awareness and early detection, but when it comes to research, please think carefully about where your donations are going. You can donate to health and medical research charities that do not use animals – including cancer groups (which can be found on the Humane Charities List) or you can ask specifically that your donation goes towards awareness, patient care, (human) clinical trials or other non-animal research.
I am hopeful that one day we will - through scientifically valid, non-animal methods of research - find the Holy Grail: a genuine cure for cancer, and no longer will we have to watch as our loved ones succumb to such a cruel and indiscriminate disease.