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walker is congratulated at the finish line of the Weekend to End Women's Cancers (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
walker is congratulated at the finish line of the Weekend to End Women's Cancers (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Lung cancer is a women's disease too Add to ...

The Shoppers Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers is a fund-raising juggernaut.

Each year, thousands of women (and some men), many of them cancer survivors or family members and many swathed in pink, take to the streets of Canada’s big cities. Over a two-day period, they walk 60 kilometres; a one-day 32K walk is also an option.

Those who sign up for the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers are told: “A future free of women’s cancers starts with your commitment to walk, fundraise and raise awareness.”

Backed by impeccable organization, this well-oiled machine raises a dizzying amount of money for cancer research, provides a lot of publicity for its principal sponsor and makes participants feel good about their contributions.

Each walker must raise a minimum of $2,000, in addition to paying a registration fee (which ensures that all the money raised goes to research), and many go well beyond. This year, the top Toronto fundraiser single-handedly brought in more than $75,000.

The cumulative results are impressive:

* In Toronto, where the flagship event took place this past weekend, walkers have raised $121-million in nine years for the Campbell Family Institute at Princess Margaret Hospital.

* In Montreal, they have raised $41-million in six years for the Segal Cancer Centre at the Jewish General Hospital.

* In Vancouver, $22-million in donations have been collected in eight years for the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

* In Alberta, walkers have pulled in $22-million for the Alberta Cancer Foundation in seven years.

* In Ottawa, they have raised just over $10-million in six years for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

Initially, the event was called the Weekend to End Breast Cancer. But competition in the breast-cancer fundraising field is fierce, with other monster events such as the CIBC Run for the Cure (whose proceeds go to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, which, in turn, funds research).

Raising money for “women’s cancers” made the event more distinctive while also broadening its appeal. In addition to breast cancer, funds now go to research into for five gynecological cancers: ovarian, cervical, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.

Those are all legitimate causes and areas where research will benefit women. But here’s what rankles: There is a cancer that kills more women than those six cancers combined. It’s lung cancer.

This year in Canada, an estimated 9,300 women will die of lung cancer and that number is on the rise. In contrast, breast cancer will kill 5,100; ovarian cancer will claim 1,750 lives; uterine cancer will kill 790 women; cervical cancer will be fatal in 350 cases and there will be a handful of cases of vaginal and vulvar cancer. Deaths from all those other “women’s cancers” are falling, in part because of research and awareness.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the thousands upon thousands of women with lung cancer could get those same benefits, if they could get a little taste of the hope that emanates from events such as the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers?

We all know the symbol for breast cancer: the pink ribbon. Do you know what the symbol is for lung-cancer survivors? The clear ribbon: the invisible ribbon for the largely invisible survivors.

For every two women diagnosed with breast cancer, one will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Five years after diagnosis, nine of 10 women with breast cancer will be alive. Only four of 10 women with lung cancer will have survived.

That’s pretty dismal.

More dismal still is this harsh reality: It’s easy to raise money for breast-cancer research because there is an army of survivors, many of whom who have compelling stories and are willing to take to the streets.

Lung-cancer patients, even when they survive after diagnosis, tend to have a pretty grim quality of life. Unlike breast cancer, effective treatments are almost non-existent.

Not only do they have to contend with a devastating illness but they must do so under a choking cloud of stigma. Lung-cancer patients are probably the only ones who get blamed for their fate. That’s because the leading cause of lung cancer is smoking. But lung cancer can also be caused by exposure to second-hand smoke, asbestos and other industrial products.

And let’s not forget why many women smoke in the first place: social pressure. The pressure to be thin is the single biggest reason young women take up smoking and continue to do so in significant numbers. And the need to support their families is the principal reason women take jobs that put them in harm’s way, expose them to industrial carcinogens. Not to mention that many women are exposed to second-hand smoke in the home if their spouse is a smoker, and they don’t always have the power to change that situation.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Lung cancer is a women’s cancer. The most deadly one of all. That it does not manifest in a body part unique to women makes it no less so. Besides, that doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite – breast cancer kills men too, about 55 a year in Canada.

Further, the reality is that one of the principal underlying causes of cancer – breast, lung or otherwise – is socio-economic status. Poverty is – or at least it should be – a top women’s health issue because it is one of the chief drivers of cancer. Never mind that it’s difficult to package that message pretty in pink.

The research dollars invested in lung cancer are paltry, wildly out of balance with the magnitude of the disease.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if fundraisers used some of their might to do right? After all, their goal is purported to be an end to women’s cancers.

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