A breast cancer conference opens in Berlin on Tuesday, April 15. Unlike the US, Germany is not awash in pink ribbons, but in its own way is promoting awareness of a cancer that is the leading cause of death for women.
Pink is the color of breast cancer awareness
Renate Haidinger was 42 when she went for a routine gynecological check-up eight years ago. A former fine arts auctioneer who had been a professional basketball player in her youth, Haidinger was fit and had always led a healthy lifestyle. She has no family history of breast or ovarian cancer and had two children by the time she turned 30. Having bigger broods at an earlier age provides greater protection against breast cancer.
Haidinger was not only at low risk in all respects, but since the majority of breast cancers occur after age 50, she was also relatively young when a sonogram had picked up a pea-sized lump in her left breast that turned out to be malignant.
The tumor, which had grown to almost 3 centimeters (one inch), was taken out within a week, followed by chemotherapy treatments that made her hair fall out. Still the cancer continued to spread and had become so aggressive that Haidinger opted to have her entire breast and lymph nodes removed months later.
Breast cancer hotlines
Having more children at an early age and breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer
One in eight women faces a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in Germany and Haidinger is only alive today because her cancer was detected and treated at an early stage.
According to the latest health statistics from the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, mortality rates went down from 40 percent to 32 percent in just three years from 2001 to 2004. Experts say this is because many more women are being diagnosed earlier and cancerous cells are being nipped in the bud before they have a chance of spreading through the lymph nodes to the bloodstream and vital organs.
Beating her cancer gave Haidinger a new lease on life and in 2001 she set up Brustkrebs-Muenchen e.V., a psychological support group staffed by breast cancer survivors like herself. Last year the hotline handled 4,000 phone calls, and the numbers keep rising.
Two years later with the support of US cosmetics giant Estee Lauder and other sponsors, Haidinger also co-founded Brustkrebs Deutschland e.V. (DBKH), which disseminates information and promotes breast cancer awareness throughout Germany.
“When I first started out, nobody wanted anything to do with breast cancer. Now companies are coming to us,” said Haisinger.
German-based Rowenta, which makes small household appliances, came on board last year with a hot-selling pink iron and donated 30,000 euros ($47,464) in proceeds from the sales. The Bavarian radio station Antenne Bayern sponsors DBKH’s toll-free hotline with gynecologists, surgeons and breast cancer specialists fielding medical questions.
Corporate sponsors and celebrities hop on bandwagon
DBKH’s roster of corporate sponsors now includes multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Hoffmann-LaRoche, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, but also the Hard Rock Café and clothing lines such as Willy Bogner and Rosner.
Using celebrities to promote a good cause
Prominent Germans have also hopped on the bandwagon in a US-style publicity blitz with fashion shows and benefit galas. Even Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor was bathed in hot pink lights during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place all over the world in October every year. Pink is the color for breast cancer awareness. Plans are now underway for a pink tour of celebrity readings next October.
Still the type of campaigning with marches and catwalks all awash in pink ribbons, pink umbrellas and pink paraphernalia, almost ubiquitous in the US, is far less conspicuous in Germany.
Awareness and access
Susan Knox, an American breast cancer survivor and the executive director of the Milan-based European advocacy group Europa Donna, said that no country is like the US when it comes to promoting breast cancer awareness in such a visible way.
“Europeans generally have a different approach when it comes to lobbying for health issues,” she said emphasizing that awareness is important, but so is access to quality medical care and state of the art technology in treating breast cancer.
“In Europe, we’re working towards equal access to healthcare services and a high baseline standard in the treatment of breast cancer,” said Knox, who explained that most European countries have national health systems that provide universal coverage, so that governments play a key role in promoting breast cancer awareness.
Mammograms and early detection of cancer saves lives
Last Tuesday, Germany’s Health Minister Ulla Schmidt held a conference on a mammography screening program that has just become available nationwide and is free-of-charge for women from 50 to 69. Once a woman turns 50, she receives an invitation in the mail once every two years to take part in a free screening at the nearest mammography center and if she lives in a remote rural town, the mobile mammography unit comes to her.
“This initiative came about as a result of lobbying efforts on a European level,” said Knox, whose Europa Donna is also sponsoring the four-day European Cancer Organisation (ECCO) breast cancer conference in Berlin that kicks off on April 15.
ECCO is an umbrella group that promotes interaction between organizations involved in cancer research, treatment and promoting patient awareness.
“The Americans are still much better at early detection,” said Haidinger, adding that a few years ago average size of a breast cancer tumor at time of diagnosis was 1.1 centimeters. Germany’s average tumor size was twice that.
“There is room for improvement, but we are catching up fast. The outcomes for patients are getting better and better here,” she said.