In my last post, I talked about my concern with the way some folks are reacting to the new mammography recommendations put forth by the US Preventative Services Task Force. My beef was that we need to relax and trust that our doctors will be good consumers of the information they receive and use recommendations in a way that they believe is appropriate. I also put forth the idea that perhaps the recommendations will ultimately lead to better tests and procedures to screen for breast cancer in the future.
My other beef lies with the way in which we provide information to people. Although it’s great that we have so much awareness regarding breast cancer, it seems to be based more on our fear of a diagnosis than a determination to create the healthiest breast possible. Take the pink ribbon for example:
When I see that ribbon, there’s a little part of me that thinks:
“Holy shit, have I scheduled a mammogram?”
This tiny fear portion of my brain stops the logical part of my mind from looking at the ribbon and thinking:
“I’m going to fix me some flax seeds and salmon tonight for dinner.”
Fear is a hell of a motivator, but when fear is constantly in the forefront of your mind, i.e., every time you spy a pink ribbon, there’s an amount of dread and despair that also settles into your psyche – and stays there. And yet, based on general statistics and my personal family history, I should be more worried about heart disease or sexual assault for that matter than breast cancer. Yet the constant barrage of pink ribbons keeps the breast cancer fear front and center for a lot of people.
So I think when recommendations like the mammogram ones released last week, counter our perceptions surrounding a reality we’ve been taught to fear, a knee jerk reaction ensues. This makes me curious as to how we educate ourselves in general. Does fear help us or hurt us? Is scaring people an acceptable downside to the heightened awareness and education that we’ve received? Is it better to only focus on what’s bad and how to avoid it or to focus on what’s good and how to enhance it?
For example, there’s a commercial that runs to promote the meningitis vaccine, Menactra, which guards against meningococcal disease which strikes 1000 – 2600 people per year. It shows healthy teens sharing water bottles and tells you how in just 24 hours this rare disease that seems like the flu can progress and lead to sudden death. What the television ad doesn’t tell you (but their print add does) is that the symptoms are much worse than traditional flu symptoms. For example along with a high fever, the teen would have a splitting headache (much worse than ever experienced) along with purple spots, numbness or loss of feeling in the extremities, sensitivity to light, confusion and even seizures. Granted, the child may not experience all of these, but still, these type of symptoms are very different from regular flu symptoms.
Per the National Meningitis Association, 300 – 360 cases per year of meningococcal disease are fatal. Or those that survive, 20% have long term, serious health problems. Adolescents and young adults are at a higher risk, yet the commercial mentions that children as young as 2 can be vaccinated. The disease cannot live long outside the body, so it isn’t spread like the common cold and is spread more often between late winter and early spring, another tidbit of information the commercial doesn’t share.
But instead of knowing all of the above, I’m left with a visual image of kids sharing water bottles and a voice over reminding me that “a lot can happen in a day”, (i.e., MY KID COULD DIE!).
Is it reasonable for me to fear meningococcal disease taking out one of my kids more than a car accident? Absolutely not because in 2005, 1,335 children ages 14 years and younger died via vehicular crashes and 184,000 were injured. That’s 4 deaths and 504 injuries per day. Hell if Metro Transit ran ads touting these statistics in a new “A lot can happen in a car ride” campaign, I’m sure their ridership would increase ten fold and I’d be convinced to never let my kids get their driver’s licenses.
My point is that people are perfectly capable of making decisions based on facts, not fears that others have manufactured and marketed to us. That way if the facts do change, we’re more apt to adjust to them calmly and reasonably. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at how we educate ourselves and decide if we’re better off living in a fear-based reality or a fact-based one.