When Women Say they Wish they Had Breast Cancer, Something is Terribly Wrong

A cancer awareness group in the UK has started a campaign featuring people saying they wish they had breast cancer. The charity’s reasons are controversial, but they’re also compelling.

The campaign, by the group Pancreatic Cancer Action, highlights the incredibly low survival rate of pancreatic cancer compared to breast and testicular cancer. It features a woman who says she wishes she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and a man saying the same about testicular cancer. It also features important facts about pancreatic cancer that might help a sufferer detect early symptoms.

All three people that feature in the video and print ads are real pancreatic cancer sufferers, and their opinions are genuine. You can see the video ad below:

Unsurprisingly, Pancreatic Cancer Action’s campaign has proved controversial. The campaign’s critics say that the charity is trivializing the seriousness of breast cancer.  They point out that while diligently screened for and highly treatable for most women, breast cancer still requires grueling treatment regimens and potentially physically and psychologically painful procedures. There is no “easy” cancer, they say, and cancer is not a competition. To imply otherwise, as the campaigns detractors say the campaign does, is actually a slap in the face for all who have been touched by breast cancer.

Writing for HuffPost UK Lifestyle, the chief executive of the Breast Cancer Campaign Baroness Morgan is quoted as saying:

“While the intention of the campaign is great, the adverts are hugely upsetting and incredibly insensitive and divisive. It has generated conversation but for the wrong reasons, and at the expense of the feelings of those affected by other cancers.”

However, many people have defended the cancer awareness campaign, among them even some breast cancer survivors, saying that the campaign is hard-hitting but that it needs to be.

Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect at early stages and, unless one has a family history of the cancer, it is unlikely that someone will be screened for it until they begin showing late-stage symptoms by which point surgery — the only cure for pancreatic cancer — cannot be carried out and by which time life expectancy may be as short as four to six months.

Furthermore, if you compare breast cancer’s survival rate of on average 85%, and testicular cancer’s survival rate of 97%, to that of pancreatic cancer which has just a five-year survival rate of 3%, the campaign’s context suddenly doesn’t seem as controversial, but that doesn’t soften the campaign’s sharp edges.

Nevertheless, there are  symptoms of the disease that could be caught and which if detected could save lives, but only if there is a greater public awareness of this form of cancer.

Those symptoms can include:

  • upper abdominal or upper back pain that doesn’t go away
  • a yellowing of skin or eyes
  • unexpected, sometimes dramatic, weight loss
  • foul smelling stool that won’t flush easily

Raising awareness was the point of the campaign, the Pancreatic Cancer Action group has said. It was never meant to minimize breast cancer’s impact but to emphasize that pancreatic cancer, known as a silent killer, can kill so many precisely because we aren’t talking about it.

Kerry, 25. Image credit: Pancreatic Cancer Action

Indeed, despite the backlash the campaign has received, one of the women who starred in the ads, Kerry Harvey, 25, who it should be noted has received social media messages of the “I wish you were dead” variety, has no regrets about the campaign.

“I know I upset a lot of people by saying what I did, but it’s true. If I had breast cancer rather than pancreatic cancer, it is almost certain I wouldn’t now be dying,” she has told the press. “Instead I’ve been told I’ve only got four to five months to live. I will never regret saying it publicly. I’m not saying that breast cancer is easier to deal with. But I wish I had it because I would have a fighting chance of survival. In the past couple of weeks, cancer lumps have grown on my head and in my breasts so I know I won’t be coming back from this.”

It would be easy to slam the awareness drive as being crass and insensitive, and many have. It would also be easy to take a defensive position on it, and say that if the media did a better job of giving equal coverage rather than picking and choosing its cancer darlings, there would be no need for this campaign in the first place.

It’s not sitting on the fence to say that both sides here have a point, but rather a recognition that this is a complex and painful discussion for all concerned. What I think is interesting here is how the launch of this campaign has quickly devolved into painful name-calling while all the while it seems we’re overlooking a very salient issue.

When women are saying they wish they had breast cancer, or when men are saying they wish they had testicular cancer, because the survival rates for pancreatic cancer hasn’t changed in four decades, something is badly wrong and needs to be addressed. At the very least though, one thing can be said with utmost certainty: the ad has done its job because we are now talking about pancreatic cancer, and for that we can be grateful.

If you would like more information about pancreatic cancer, its symptoms and potential risk factors, please click here.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Stacey Temple
Stacey Temple4 years ago

....Oh, and petition signed!

Stacey Temple
Stacey Temple4 years ago

It's terribly awful, for any cancer sufferer and their families to have go through this but I do completely understand why this campaign was raised. Their is a lot of awareness about different forms of cancer...but not enough prevention. Being diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence...but that's not to say that those with breast cancer don't also feel the hardship and traumas that come with the disease. Any form of cancer is a terrible thing...God bless to those who suffer and their families

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B4 years ago

I read that, sadly, Kerry passed away on Saturday - R.I.P Kerry.

Dave C.
David C4 years ago

cancer of any type is still a sad disease.

Colin Hope
Colin Hope4 years ago


Carol P.
Carol P4 years ago

I'd have to agree that it is insensitive. More should be done to screen for pancreatic cancer.

Christine Stewart

At least they weren't being flippant about it- they literally wished they had breast cancer instead of the more seriously deadly pancreatic cancer...

Susanne R.
Susanne R4 years ago

Message was cut short:

"... deadly forms of cancer, including pancreatic and lung cancer."

It's very sad that this Act had to be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act in order to get passed. That's politics as we know it.

Susanne R.
Susanne R4 years ago

It may sound cruel to hear someone say they'd rather have breast or testicular cancer than pancreatic cancer, but these people have been given a death sentence. I believe they're expressing a desire to have been afflicted with the lesser of two evils and not minimizing or downplaying the plight of their fellow cancer sufferers. Their message is an important one:

From the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network:

"For pancreatic cancer, the picture is even worse: the analyses reveal that pancreatic cancer incidence is projected to increase by 55 percent from 2010 to 2030. Pancreatic cancer is one of only eight cancers for which diagnosis is projected to increase by more than 50 percent. Based on these data alone, it is predicted that 62,000 individuals will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2030."

A statement issued by the same source in 2013 provides some positive news:

"President Barack Obama made history in the fight against pancreatic cancer by signing the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act into law. The legislation, formerly known as the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act, passed the U.S. Congress on December 21 after it was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act.

The landmark legislation requires the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to examine its current research efforts on cancers with very low survival rates and work to develop early detection methods and better treatment options to help improve outcomes for those diagnosed with the most

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Time to pay attention to the mind