The breast cancer awareness movement is one of the most spectacular success stories of all time. Thanks to an energetic network of survivors - 150,000 of them in Canada - breast cancer gets the lion's share of cancer donations and media attention. Just one problem: Breast cancer has become the 900-pound gorilla of the cancer world. With everyone walking, cycling and holding Boobie-Thons for the cure, a lot of other cancers are ignored.
My friend Libby Znaimer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago. Pancreatic cancer kills nearly as many people every year (3,900) as breast cancer does (5,400). But no one holds walkathons to raise money for it. That's because almost none of its victims are still alive. "If all the survivors got together, it would be a very small party," says Ms. Znaimer, a rare exception.
How big is the funding gap? A new report by Charity Intelligence Canada found that pancreatic cancer gets next to no direct donations. Neither does lung cancer, even though it accounts for 27 per cent of all cancer deaths. Colorectal cancer, which kills 70 per cent more people than breast cancer, gets 36 times less money, based on years of life lost. There are 44 breast cancer charities in Canada. There are none for stomach cancer, which is rarer but far more deadly.
None of this is really a surprise. We give with our hearts, not our heads. We give because of our personal connections, because of friends, family members, colleagues and media attention. We give hugely disproportionate amounts to children's cancers, even though they account for less than 1 per cent of all cancers. We give disproportionately more to gendered cancers - breast and prostate - because we know lots of people who are affected.
Big institutions contribute heavily to breast cancer because it's a highly popular cause among female employees. But lung cancer gets nothing, because we blame the victims (even though 13 per cent of them have never smoked), and colorectal cancer is underfunded because it involves unmentionable body parts.
Canadians give $614-million a year to cancer charities. But most don't have a clue how our money's used or how effective it is.
Karen Greve Young, one author of the Cancer in Canada report, wants to change that. She, too, has a personal link: Her mother died of ovarian cancer at 58. The report argues persuasively that your donor dollars will have a lot more impact if you target underfunded areas. One example is research into pancreatic cancer. Another is palliative care.
Ms. Young would like to abolish the word "cure."
"Cancer is a genetic breakdown caused by the accumulated damage of living. We aren't going to eradicate it." Instead, the aim is to drive down mortality rates, as we have done with breast cancer.
Another way to make your money more effective is to eliminate the middleman. Think of donating directly to research institutions. Remember that the cost of fundraising can take a large bite out of your donation. If fundraising and administrative costs are more than 25 per cent, you should ask why. At many cancer agencies -including the Canadian Cancer Society, by far the largest fundraiser in Canada - these costs exceed 30 per cent.
There's no big overhead at Pancreatic Cancer Canada. This tiny outfit is run by two volunteers, Betty Aldridge (whose husband, Dick, a former Toronto Argonaut, died of pancreatic cancer within a month of diagnosis) and Laurie Ellies (whose mother also died of the disease). In the past five years, these two women have raised half a million dollars, virtually all of which has gone toward research.
In the cancer world, that's small change. But to Libby Znaimer, who's now their spokesperson, it's a promising start. "We've gotten a few stories out, and we've raised awareness. I've never done something with such positive results in my life."