“I Wish I Had Breast Cancer”

by Karen on April 2, 2014

The photo – a somber young woman with downcast eyes and visible tumors beneath the skin of her bald head – is haunting. But the message beside it is the bombshell: “I wish I had breast cancer.”

I Wish I Had Breast Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Action Advertizement

The image was part of a recent ad campaign by Pancreatic Cancer Action in the United Kingdom. Designed to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer, the campaign also included a short video.

So. What do you think?

Powerful? Provocative? Compelling? Reckless?

My own first reactions – nearly simultaneous – ranged from awe to, well, angry words I try to say only in my head, because I’ve taught my children not to use them.

I thought immediately of a young friend who was in fourth grade (and had three younger siblings) when her mom died of breast cancer. How would she feel if she stumbled upon that ad in a newspaper?

How would my friend, Kelley, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just months after Kelley was born, feel if she watched the video?

As a breast cancer survivor, how do I feel? I’m not quite sure.

My heart breaks for Kerry Harvey, the young woman in the photo, who died less than three weeks after the ad first appeared February 4 and only 10 months after her initial diagnosis. She was 24 and engaged to be married.

On one hand, I completely understand her wish to have a type of cancer with a survival rate that is not only higher but also more often measured in years rather than months. Yes, I’m glad I was diagnosed with breast cancer – not pancreatic cancer – 18 years ago.

On the other hand, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer.* I’ve certainly never heard anyone who’s lost a loved one to breast cancer say, “Oh, thank goodness it wasn’t pancreatic cancer.”

Ali Stunt, founder and chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer Action, apologized in her blog for any hurt the ad might have caused at first glance. “When we devised the idea … we knew that it would create some noise, but we also knew it was what we needed to do to ultimately create awareness of a cancer that currently has a shockingly low survival rate of only three percent,” she wrote.

Visits to the Symptoms page on the Pancreatic Cancer Action’s website spiked after the release of the ad, Stunt said. “Yes, the (ad) is hard hitting and may even offend some, but it does compel you to read on – which is what we need people to do if we are to change the fortunes for pancreatic cancer.”

So, was the ad effective? Perhaps.

Was it fair? I just don’t know.

* What are the key statistics about breast cancer?


Kathy April 9, 2014 at 11:19 am

Hurray! Yet another way to divide the world and turn every damn issue into a zero sum brawl! About as helpful as a brain tumor.

Viki April 10, 2014 at 6:41 am

Anything that forces a financial/research/cure call to action in the world of cancer is a fair shot at the enemy.

I recall similar conversations when breast cancer survivors and esophageal cancer survivors started appearing in print and tv ads…their bald heads, their scars, women minus their breast/s, people in wheelchairs and oxygen suppliments, celebrities appearing in ads they knew would run only after they died from their cancers, the sweet faces of children and babies suffering from the side effects of life saving chemo and radiation…it takes money to cure diseases. It takes a violent amount of shocking attention to get those in the %1 to open their wallets, pull strings and launch studies and more importantly educate the public. I’m sad for this woman and her family knowing she didn’t make it, but she tried to make a difference. 30 years ago the women dying by the thousands from untreated, undetected, uncured breast cancer would’ve said bravo because they did the same thing.

Rebecca April 15, 2014 at 1:17 am

I completely agree with this and think you perfectly worded what I was thinking. Thank you.

Renee April 11, 2014 at 6:51 am

In my family, we’ve lost my grandmother, great-aunt, and my great-grandmother to breast cancer. My mother is the first survivor, so I’m incredibly thankful for the advances in technology and treatment that allowed my mother to live. Saying that, and knowing my chances of one day having breast cancer are very high, I am not at all offended by this ad campaign. When my mom received her diagnosis, we were told that, in our state, breast and ovarian cancer treatment are covered under a special fund that isn’t available to patients with any other type of cancer. That allowed my mother to receive top-notch care from experienced surgeons and oncologists. It’s sad that isn’t provided for other cancer patients! I completely understand this ad.

Kristen April 11, 2014 at 11:20 am

As a three-year breast cancer survivor in remission who had a close friend pass away from breast cancer just six weeks ago (and a second friend passed from ovarian cancer two weeks ago), this ad really upsets me. I do not feel the ad fosters anything but animosity. I assume that the originator of this ad campaign has not been personally impacted by breast cancer. There is NO good cancer. There needs to be awareness of ALL cancers and compassion for ALL people impacted by cancer, regardless of the type. Whether your cancer ribbon color is purple, teal, pink, gold, red, gray, zebra striped, or any other color in the spectrum, advocate for awareness, support and love for those in their cancer journeys, and support research. And I ask you…please don’t wish for breast cancer. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

michelle April 29, 2014 at 3:39 pm

where are all the fundraisers for pancreatic cancer,wheres the 5 k,where are the pink ribbons? i think that this is the point of the ad. she wishes for a cancer that has support in the millions not a cancer that most people dont know anything about….tell me what color is the ribbon for pancratic cancer?

Julia April 11, 2014 at 12:54 pm

How can anyone in their right mind take offense to the statements of a woman dying of cancer. It does not matter what kind of cancer she has. The fact remains that she is dying because of it. She has every right to feel the way she does, or rather did. I cannot tell you how many different types of cancer there are in my family, and I live my life from day to day knowing that one day I will most likely have one or the other of them. It’s like a shadow, hanging darkly just behind me. Would I ever wish to have a different one than the one I might end up with? Who knows. I am not there yet. I cannot tell you where my head will be. I can, however, tell you where my head is now, and my head is with a young woman who died from a cancer that kills more often than not. She was young, six years younger than me. Never married, though she was engaged, and most likely never learned the joy of motherhood. My heart breaks for her, her family, and her fiance. That is what we should all be thinking about. That the day she died we lost another to this horrible, nasty disease. We should be looking at what we can do to treat and maybe even cure cancer without killing the patients in the process. We should not be ridiculing her for how she felt in the final weeks of her life.

Karen April 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. I truly go back and forth on this ad campaign. I can see both sides.

Teal April 11, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Well, I can say for damn sure I wish my mother would have gotten diagnosed with breast cancer instead of pancreatic. I lost her when I was 10 years old, calling the ambulance, seeing her starve to death because it had spread all over her body including esophagus so she couldnt eat. Yes, I wish she would have instead gotten breast cancer.

Audrey April 27, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Hurt goes both ways and as someone whose mother lost her 11 year battle with breast cancer, when I was only 12 years old, I can say I wish my mother never would have gotten cancer. I have lost plenty of family and friends to breast cancer and while survival rates are getting better all the time, I think we should remember not every one survives.

Mary April 14, 2014 at 4:30 am

As someone who is a breast cancer survivor and is now undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, I can tell you it’s a lot easier to have breast cancer for the simple fact of acute awareness and support. Breast cancer support is huge. Thyroid cancer is one everyone virtually dismisses. The minute I was diagnosed with breast cancer, two women showed up with file folders already filled with information about me, and both women immediately offered up their cards and their support no matter what issues or questions I had. I was led to a clinic where I was offered discounted necessities and even free wigs. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I had to pull teeth to get anyone to pay attention at all. Are all cancers horrific? Absolutely. I wish sincerely that no one ever have cancer at all. But I even joked at the time “It’s good at least to have a popular cancer.” And now having another one.. a rare type of thyroid cancer that is much more aggressive than breast cancer.. I completely sympathize with the message in this ad.

Lissa April 15, 2014 at 9:13 pm

As we all know (because of the simple fact we are reading this) cancer is devastating…no matter what kind. However, the awareness and support for breast cancer is much higher than most (almost all) others. I love the fact that people are talking about it, getting checked and hopefully doing their due diligence to get the care they need. I think it’s an important and worthwhile cause.

However…and this is where I get a little fired up, I have thyroid cancer. I had my thyroid and part of my parathyroid removed last week. I am a 28 year old woman with illness that I honestly think would make most people crumble. I have seizures, throw up constantly, hot flashes (soooo sexy at 28) , and emotions that don’t know what end is up.

ALL cancers are a BIG deal (they are not fun!). As a community, there should be more support overall. I lost my aunt to cancer, I lost my best friend to cancer a month after we walked across the stage at our college graduation. I can clearly see how this can be offensive. I can also see how it’s a light, a fire sparked and a thought provoked. Used correctly…and with some tact, it can be a game changer and an eye opener.

Reader April 20, 2014 at 7:41 pm

After my family survived my stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Treated by the same doctors who treat me, my husband succumbed in less than 3 months. Advances in breast cancer treatment gave us false hope for the treatment of this rarer and more insipid cancer. Every day is a struggle for our son and me. After all Pat did for me, all we could do is watch him slip away. I do not wish my pain on anyone. Something must be done.
Breast cancer survivors be grateful we live in a time when we can thrive and work for this opportunity for victims of other more fatal and mysterious cancers

Vanessa Waltz April 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm

I can see both sides of the issue. However, as a young survivor of Stage III breast cancer who deals daily with the aftermath of treatment (stroke/brain injury, neuropathy, chronic pain, etc.) I also take this rather personally. I wish I’d had Stage I breast cancer. I mean, I wish I had just about anything with better odds and a less intense treatment protocol. Honestly, the Pink Ribbons haven’t done shit for me. Getting a free wig was nice and all but for all the awareness campaigns and pink everything, the research hasn’t caught up with the hype. I would have had the same treatment if I’d gotten the same diagnosis 10 years earlier. My dad died from Glioblastoma (aggressive brain cancer), so I am also a “member” of the brain cancer social media community…And let me tell you, those folks say stuff like this all the time. It’s their right, and truth be told, I’d rather have breast cancer than Glioblastoma. The odds are better; it’s that simple. The flip side is, people seem to think that self-exams and mammograms are enough to prevent breast cancer from being deadly. I hear “It’s all over now, you made it” from well-intentioned people all the time. F you, I think, it’s not over. I don’t know the answers to any of this, but I do know that the media doesn’t have a great track record of showcasing people with more advanced or end-stage cancers – breast cancer or otherwise – and this ad at least gives a nod to that.

Bob April 25, 2014 at 2:06 am

It seems like all I hear about these days is breast cancer. I get pounded by ads, posters, signs, pamphlets, commercials on radio and tv. And believe me, I gave my fair share to “save the ta-tas.” Well, women outlive men in this country by 6-9 years, so I’ve changed my cancer contributions to only prostate cancer campaigns. It’s not quite as deadly for men as breast cancer is for women (28,560 to 40,996 = 2 to 3), but it’s not far behind. Why don’t you ever hear about prostate cancer? Because it usually affect older men, and they just don’t count in this society much any more. Breasts are a lot more attractive than prostates, hey?

Cathy Reakes April 25, 2014 at 10:33 pm

I am torn when I see this ad.I am a two time fighter of breast cancer,My first time 2009,Stage 3 inflammatory and it was no picnic.I lost my left breast,8 chemos, 30 radiation.treatments.I almost made it to 4 yrs remission.Round two .stage 4 breast cancer in my neck.2013 …Again no picnic.15 rounds of perjeta chemo.guess what immune to that so now I just did my 5th round of Kadcyla chemo.,,I truely say all cancers are bad.I see them every doctor appt.I have lost good people to cancer. Its a horrible monster for every walk of life,Young,old rich or poor.No one is safe, ..In fact I did not see this couple in a few weeks where his wife was so sick where you just knew,watching his heart breaking… Thats all I have to say,its all unfair……..

John April 26, 2014 at 7:54 am

Once again I have cancer. I’m just starting 45 radiation doses. I go every day and sit and wait for treatment with a small room of patients all waiting for treatment. Last time I had surgery, this time it is less intrusive. My co-patients are undergoing radiation too and some chemo as well. Some have lost their hair, eyebrows, eye lashes, fingernails and toe nails. But, those who are in the middle of their treatment or late stages are all upbeat, courageous, sharing and caring. I now look forward to being with these people every day. We all support each other, even though we are strangers in the rest of our lives. I find in my fellow patients the same close relationship that exists among those in combat together — for that is what we are — we are all on the front lines fighting together.

Donna April 27, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Any form of cancer is terrible! But to say you WISH you had BC when breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women is slapping the faces of every man, woman and child facing this disease. I agree that we need to bring awareness to other types of cancer.. but not by staging a battle to be fought against other cancer warriors. There are no winners here. We are all in this together.

Patti April 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm

First let me say that I understand that it is an ad campaign, and I understand the marketing aspect of it. That being said where do we draw the line? Yes, awareness needs to happen, but at what cost?? Why was Breast Cancer the cancer chosen? Why not Prostate Cancer? Colon Cancer? Thyroid Cancer? Why Breast Cancer???? (Obviously, because this picture is of a woman) But it is almost as if this particular ad campaign is saying that breast cancer is what…..frivolous? Cosmetic? The scary thing is as I was reading this my husband just said ” Well I see their point- all you have to do is remove the breast & then the cancer is all gone.” I explained….it’s not that simple, breast cancer is the second leading killer of women. Treated or otherwise. How many men die from prostate cancer? See what happens?? I agree there truly is a NEED for an ad campaign. I think however, that a campaign that focuses on the need for education, research, detection, & funding is the more effective why to go. I for one will remember this ad but it in NO WAY makes me want to donate to pancreatic cancer research, simply because I would be afraid that I would be paying for more of these ads. When we start pitting one disease sufferer against the other we are crossing a line and it is the sick that truly pay the price.

kathy April 29, 2014 at 12:47 am

I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer. And I understand the reaction that this ad gets However, in my own private hell, I hate the pink ribbon. I hate that every where I go, I see pink. Even my mushrooms at the grocery store are packaged in pink during October. Football players wear pink socks. My 5 year old knows what a pink ribbon stands for. I don’t see football players wearing purple socks in November (the month for pancreatic cancer awareness). I don’t see the top of the John Hancock in Chicago lit up with purple lights (pink in October). I don’t wish cancer on anyone. I am glad breast cancer has received so much research (one of my beast friends died from it but she had a fighting chance). My dad didn’t have a chance. There is no money spent on pancreatic research. I’m glad this young lady had the guts to say this. My heart breaks for her family and for the fact that her life was cut so short. I donate to every form of cancer research, obviously most focused on pancreatic (the second is childhood cancers!) I understand her wish. I wish my dad had breast cancer as well. He was one of the lucky ones. He survived 18 months. That’s very long for a person with pancreatic cancer. It’s sad that I consider that lucky. Whats the average survival rate for breast cancer? Average rate for pancreatic is 6 months. ALL cancers deserve the SAME awareness. It’s not just about pink anymore. Prayers to every person who has cancer. No matter what kind.

michelle April 29, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Thank you for saying this,its so true.

Tina April 30, 2014 at 12:18 am

I have breast cancer. I wasn’t offended but I feel it would be better to state ” I wish no one had any form of cancer ”
I did feel as though it was a downplay of what I am going through and what other members of my family have gone through. Any form of cancer is dangerous.

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