Major strides in the arena of cancer prevention and treatment have been made over the past 30 years. Advancements in science are an enormous factor in the increase of cancer survival rates. This includes the host of new drugs to treat cancer, equipment developed to detect abnormal cell growth and a greater understanding of how lifestyle choices, like diet, exercise and smoking, influence future risk of developing cancer. These scientific breakthroughs would not be as significant if it were not for the leading development in the fight against cancer; the social acceptance of the disease.
Until as recently as the 70s, cancer was rarely discussed and those diagnosed suffered in silence. The lack of understanding around the disease led to cultural limits on how people dealt with their diagnosis. Families discussed in whispers when one of their own had the “C” word. The stigma of cancer left victims full of shame and guilt, blaming themselves for catching the disease. With very few medical options, a lack of support from their own families and communities and no social network of fellow sufferers to turn to, these victims of cancer often died in painful isolation.
While many argue that the social and sexual revolution of the past few generations have left our society with moral and ethical issues, it is these very social changes that enabled the scientific community to make remarkable progress with combating cancer. As people became more comfortable with sharing their diagnosis with friends and family, social networks of fighters and survivors formed, empowering many to fight the disease personally and globally. As support groups grew and foundations formed, funding to medical research grew exponentially. While 40 years ago many would wince at the thought of sharing their cancer diagnosis, we now have hundreds of thousands of people willing to share their stories and their struggles in hopes of helping others, to raise money, and to eradicate the disease. Fundraisers like The Race for the Cure, where millions are raised and hope and strength shared through walkers donning the famous pink survivor shirts, would not have been possible without the social upheaval of the 20th century.
With the media filled with images of Britney Spears going commando and every day people flashing their flesh, it is hard to imagine a world where people would be so modest that they would not perform a self breast or testicle exam, and would refuse to see a gynecologist or proctologist because they did not want a stranger looking at their privates. Though conservative pundits argue that we could use some more discretion in the world today, the decrease of modesty is a factor in the improvements in cancer prevention. Embracing that it is okay to touch yourself and be examined by a doctor is the first step in ensuring cancer is discovered and treated early, and early treatment is increasing survival rates across all cancers.
Recent trends towards social conservatism threaten to set back decades of advances in the cure and prevention of cancer. The discovery that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of cervical cancer (as well as some anal, vulvar, head, neck and penile cancers) and is often caused by sexual transmission threatens to create a culture where individuals fear seeking tests and treatments for these cancers. Although not all HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, conservative parental groups are fighting legislation on making the HPV vaccine mandatory, stating this will increase sexual promiscuity and undermines their teachings on abstinence. These arguments are without merit; teenagers were having sex long before the potential connection with cancer and the new discovery is not likely to change those behaviors. Cigarettes have long been connected to cancer and that has not stopped teens from smoking.
These parents who will not permit their daughters to receive this vaccine are threatening more lives then just that of their own family; they are threatening the very movement of acceptance and empowerment that is necessary to fight cancer. Historically, mandatory vaccines led to the eradication of a disease. The movement against making the HPV vaccine mandatory is a slap in the face to every woman and family who has faced the devastation of cervical cancer and every person who worked hard to discover a way to beat this devastating diagnosis. Whether women with a cervical cancer got HPV from consensual sex, rape, a cheating spouse or non-sexual reasons, she will face the same shame and guilt present many years ago that prohibited people from surviving their diagnosis. This same conservativism not only threatens the fight against cancer, but the fight against AIDS and a host of other diseases. Unless social acceptance and the fight against these diseases continue, no matter what the cause, the narrow-minded and their intolerant views are poised to threaten the health of millions. We must continue to fight for the cure, no matter what the disease and no matter how the victim contracted it.