Everywhere I looked these past few weeks I couldn't help but notice the pink ribbon. Being somewhat of a hermit and perhaps more than a little out of touch with society, it didn't hit me until...well today actually. It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A few weeks back my mom was telling me about how a local tattoo shop is giving out free pink ribbon tattoos - and well now that makes sense. The weird conga line of people wearing glowstick headbands and pink ribbon shirts in the park last week - makes sense. The teller at the grocery store asking me if I wanted to round up my change to support breast cancer research....duh.
So now that I am "in the know" - only 20 days after the fact - I would like to participate a little in this awareness process. For a pretty long time now I have had breast cancer awareness. Both my paternal and my maternal grandmothers had breast cancer, and my mom (who thankfully hasn't had it) has always been pretty into those pink ribbon magnets and bumper stickers and may even be getting a tattoo now. I am aware of breast cancer. I am aware of what I should be doing (at least somewhat aware) to prevent it and check for it. I am aware there is no cure and that there are tons of organizations throwing money at scientists diligently working towards that goal. But until quite recently, I wasn't at all aware of the part the animals have to play in this disease and it's cure.
According to Pinkribbon.org, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women right behind skin cancer, so chances are most of us has known someone who has had breast cancer. The devastation it can cause to a woman and her family are immense and widespread and organizations like the Pink Ribbon and the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation have kept the issue in the public eye - helping raise money "for the cure." But...what exactly does that mean? Where is that money going? The awareness that I would like to bring this month is that perhaps we should look a little closer at what it is we support and fund. We tend (and I am so guilty of this myself) to look at just the big picture. Breast Cancer = BAD. Finding the Cure = GOOD. So in extension, any group pledging to help find the cure is filed into our mental GOOD folder and we can guiltlessly sign over checks to help in the cause. Lets look a little deeper shall we.
While reading Karen Dawn's "Thanking the Monkey" (Im starting to feel like her personal spokeswoman) I was a little surprised to learn that according to FDA law, "no drug is allowed onto the market until it has been put through a battery of animal tests." In the case of breast cancer the animal of choice is usually mice but can also include monkeys, rats, rabbits, cats, and dogs. The debate between whether or not animal testing is necessary or accurate is a hot one. Tons of examples can be found on both sides - from the people at Pro Test to the passionate, if sometimes a little bit nutty, PETA. In looking at the people who are for animal testing I have come across a pattern. Their stance (and I pulled this one from Pro Test, but some others were similar) is that, "without animal research, medicine as we know it today wouldn't exist. Animal research has enabled us to find treatments for cancer, antibiotics for infections, vaccines to prevent some of the most deadly and debilitating viruses and surgery for injuries, illnesses and deformities." Sounds like all you need to know right? Animal testing got us where we are today. It's true. I won't deny that.
But here is what the other side of the issue has to say: Animal testing is not that affective and we have new, more current, animal free ways of testing medicines. As I already mentioned, mice are the animal most commonly used to test breast cancer drugs. PETA quotes the former National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Richard Klausner saying, "The history of cancer research has been the history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades, and it simply didn't work in humans." In other words we have successfully learned how to induce and then cure breast cancer in rodents, but can those findings help humans? Medications and treatments that are successful in mice are then moved to human trials. Dawn quotes this from a New York Times report on human trials that were successful in mice, "One in 20 prospective cancer cures used in human tests reaches markets, the worst record of any medical category. Among those that gained approval in the last 20 years, fewer than one in five have been shown to extend lives, life extensions usually measuring in weeks or months, not years." The publication Nature (also quoted in Dawn's book) says that "' Of the potential anticancer drugs that give promising results in tests on mice with cancer, only about 11 percent are ever approved for use in people.'" Doesn't seem like very good odds.
But what makes us think animals are so close to us that we can test them for cures to our illnesses, but yet so far from us that testing on them isn't somehow morally wrong? And what makes us think that a positive or adverse reaction to tests will mean anything for us? As Dawn points out, "aspirin causes birth defects in mice and rates. Ibuprofen causes kidney failure in dogs - even at very low doses," and "at the high doses employed in animal tests- sometimes staggeringly high doses that are necessary because of the dissimilarity in the ways different species process chemicals - penicillin kills guinea pigs." Does this mean we may have found the cure for cancer along the way - then tested it on a monkey or a rat who didn't show any positive reactions - so we chucked it out the window? We won't know the answer to that because unless the drug in question is tested and receives positive results in animals, its worthless as far as the FDA is concerned.
But there are newer methods out there to run tests that don't involve animals. Dr Neal D. Bernard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine or PCRM writes in his article A Look At Cancer Research about some of the alternatives that are being found. He writes that scientists at the National Cancer Institute were concerned by the "phenomenally low yields" of possible treatments making it to human trials and started to explore the idea that perhaps mice and humans just don't deal with cancer in the same way. Bernard writes that " a new method uses cultures of human cancer cells. These cells are obtained from biopsies or surgeries. In an automated method developed by Robert Shoemaker and Michael Boyd of the NCI, colon cancer cells, breast cancer cells, and many other cell types can be kept alive in test tubes. Substances are applied to these cells, and the results are checked and entered into a computer. Using this method, tens of thousands of potential anti-cancer drugs can be screened." But they won't be allowed to be marketed to humans until they are tested on animals so they can be approved by the FDA.
Well this leads us to an even bigger problem - how do we get the FDA to change it's policy? Well that's a whole 'nother can of worms and honestly Im no authority on any sort of legal, governement blah blah blah action. But, what I do know is that we can give our money to groups and non-profits that pledge to "find the cure" without torturing animals. And yeah - the animals get a pretty sour deal out of this whole "find the cure" business. The companies that test cancer drugs don't run around looking for abandoned dogs with breast cancer or sewer rats with a terrible case of colon cancer - they GIVE cancer to the animals they test. And then they try to take it away - and the animal either dies in trials or is killed at the end of the test.
But lucky for us animal lovers there are plenty or organizations who have received the Human Charity Seal of Approval run by the PCRM who are searching for the cure to breast cancer (just type breast cancer into the search box and you will get the whole list of approved and unapproved charities). Organizations like Pink Ribbon Girls who help young women with breast cancer and the American Breast Cancer Foundation who have cool fundraisers like Yoga For Life. One that I was particularly interested in was the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation where I learned about the Army of Women, a program set up by the Dr. Susan Love RF and the Avon Foundation for Women in which they propose" To recruit one million healthy women of every age and ethnicity, including breast cancer survivors and women at high-risk for the disease, to partner with breast cancer researchers and directly participate in the research that will eradicate breast cancer once and for all." And "To challenge the scientific community to expand its current focus to include breast cancer prevention research conducted on healthy women." To learn more about the project check out their website and be sure to read the FAQ. Organizations like these realize that what we have been doing for the past 25 plus years isn't working. They realize that, yes, American's are AWARE. But we need more than that. We need to try something new. It's sad to think that huge foundations like Susan G. Komen are bringing in money to fund animal testing, but its also comforting to know that there are other groups working towards something new and exciting.
I would also advocate that we all try the Think Before You Pink advice given here by Breast Cancer Action. It's tempting to assume that the pink ribbon you buy from a store is your little contribution to the cure but perhaps it's not having as much of an impact as you had hoped, and perhaps there are even better things you could be doing that support the cure while protecting millions of animals from unnecessary testing.
If anyone has comments to add, opinions, or by all means if you have more expertise in this matter than me (I certainly don't claim to know everything) - please please share your thoughts.