As stores fill up with pink products, we know it must be Breast Cancer Awareness Month again. Never mind the fact that these products generate only miniscule donations to breast cancer research, screening, or treatment. The pink ribbon is more of an advertisement for these “pinkwashed” companies than a genuine social good. And forget the crude advertising that suggests women’s body parts are worth saving because of their sexual value. Better to ask, is knowledge about health really as useful as awareness campaigns seem to suggest?
While good information is necessary to make appropriate decisions, overemphasizing “awareness” undercuts the role that other factors play in our health. At this point, public awareness of breast cancer is not going to increase no matter what we slap a pink ribbon on. Nearly every woman knows that breast cancer is a problem. Far more women need insurance, a primary care provider, or a ride to their nearest available mammogram appointment.
Further, too much information can be harmful. Do enough tests, and eventually false positives start to pile up. Too-frequent mammograms or blood tests for prostate cancer have been shown to increase anxiety-provoking and painful biopsies without preventing deaths. (This is why, for example, we don’t scan the brains of every person who has a headache—too many false positives for cancer.) Patients ask me to “get tested for everything,” not realizing that our symptoms, age, family history, and environment have to guide the testing we perform. Awareness without the right context does no good.
We don’t become healthy by passively receiving information about health and submitting to medical procedures. This is ...1