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Sexism in cancer research

Cancer. It’s a horrific, traumatising and sometimes deadly disease that affects millions of people on the planet. Except for certain types of cancer that are biologically impossible for certain genders to get (such as ovarian cancer in men or testicular cancer in women), the disease is gender neutral. It doesn’t care what gender you are and it doesn’t discriminate – so why do the health professionals treating it and the researchers behind it?

In the USA, October is national Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the spirit of this, a lot of health clinics in Florida offered discounted or free mammograms. One patient discovered a painful lump in their right breast several weeks prior to this and the lump became the size of a golf ball. Lacking health insurance, the patient went to Fawcett Memorial Hospital to take advantage of their special offer on mammograms in honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The patient was refused a mammogram. The patient got that very same response from a further six health organisations. Why? Because the patient was Donald Mudd, a man, and men apparently don’t qualify for mammogram cancer screenings.

Men are not perceived to have breasts in the same way that women do, probably because they don’t tend to stick out and aren’t always housed in bras, but the cold, hard, medical fact of the matter is that men do have breasts and, although it is rare, the breast tissue in men can become cancerous.

It’s downright sexist to deny a man any form of medical help based on his gender, just like it would be for women. So why did this happen? There is a common misconception that men cannot get breast cancer, which is not true. Kathy Shepard of Breast Health Navigator says that there “are more and more men who have breast cancer issues. And the reality is, not too many people are aware of that”. Even Donald himself has admitted that he “was a little bit in shock to even find out that men could have breast cancer”.

The stigma, combined with the ignorance, surrounding breast cancer and its victims have made it more and more difficult for men to be both taken seriously and treated for their breast cancer. The American Cancer Society states that approximately 2240 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed for men every year and that roughly 410 men will die annually due to breast cancer.

But the sexism doesn’t stop with cancer treatment – it’s in the research too. According to Cancer Research UK, the most common cause of cancer death in both men and women is lung cancer (24% of men and 21% for women). The second most common cause of cancer death for men is prostate cancer (13%) and for women it is breast cancer (15%). Despite the numbers of deaths caused by breast and prostate cancers being so close together, there is much more research and awareness going into breast cancer.

When it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the colour pink is flaunted about in and on almost anything to help raise money to fight the disease. Pink cupcakes, water bottles, clothing, headphones, GHD’s – you name it and there is probably a pink version of it for breast cancer. There are special campaigns for it too, ‘Tickled Pink’ and ‘Wear it Pink’ are two that immediately spring to mind.

When Prostate Cancer Awareness Month occurs (most commonly during September) the colour blue might only be a brief flash in your day. You might see a donation box full of blue ribbons at a till, or perhaps a pair of blue boxer shorts in men’s clothing store. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere that’s puts the same emphasis and importance on helping the men suffering with this disease and stressing the need to cure it than you’ll find for breast cancer. I am not suggesting for a second that breast cancer is unimportant or unworthy of funding for research, but why should it get significantly more attention and funding over prostate cancer, whose death toll is only marginally smaller than breast cancer’s? Aren’t men suffering as well as women?

It seems that women are held up on a pedestal when it comes to cancer research and it’s egregious. Take the ‘Race for Life’ campaign -a fundraising event that forbids men from taking part. Men cannot raise money for Cancer Research UK; the campaign is not just for breast cancer, it’s cancer in general. The men are allowed to volunteer on the day, but are not allowed to take part in the event to raise money for a common cause.

It seems that cancer research has a tendency to lean towards female privilege and it’s wrong. The developed, modern world would like to think that it has abolished many negative things; homophobia, racism, sexism – but there is always evidence emerging to prove that these abhorrent things are alive and well. The very least we can do is to recognise injustice when it arises and take steps to eradicate it, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen.

Cancer is not a female issue, nor a male issue; it’s a human issue. It affects everyone. Hopefully one day segregation like this will end and we can work together to triumph over a problem that is common to us all.


  • Congrats on your win, V! This was an interesting read. I wonder if breast cancer research is prevalent because it has a higher “cure” rate than prostate cancer, for an example. Researchers just may want to study a cancer that they are near to conquering. Hmm?

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