Mission Accomplished for Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

Posted: September 19, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: September 19, 2011 at 10:24 am

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty and Julie Brown

Kathryn Jacobsen. Creative Services photo

Each October, the color pink marks the arrival of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Media coverage, product promotions and even the football gridirons showcase the national effort to promote screenings and early detection of the cancer that 200,000 American women are diagnosed with each year. And a recent study shows that the awareness campaign has worked.

New research from Mason and the University of Oregon examined more than 30 years of cancer registry data to determine if October events related to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) lead to increases in breast cancer diagnoses in the following month of November.

The study, co-authored by Mason epidemiologist Kathryn Jacobsen, and Grant Jacobsen, an economist, found that NBCAM events were effective at increasing November diagnoses during the mid-1990s when the awareness movement was expanding across the United States. This was also the time when October was officially recognized by the federal government as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

According to Kathryn Jacobsen, associate professor in the Department of Global and Community Health in the College of Health and Human Services, breast cancer awareness was a rich subject for the study because it is one of the oldest and most well-established awareness campaigns in the United States.

“So much has changed from 1987 when only 30 percent of women in target age groups reported having had a mammogram in the previous two years,” she says. “Communities came together — women and men — to talk about breast cancer, and screenings among the target group increased to 70 percent by 1999.”

The study, which was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Health Economics, found that before NBCAM was well established in the early 1990s, there were large fluctuations in the diagnosis of breast cancer. Most notable to the researchers were significant spikes in 1974 and 1987 coinciding with announcements by first ladies Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan disclosing their breast cancer diagnosis.

“Our findings indicate that during the period before NBCAM, when breast cancer was rarely talked about, celebrity diagnoses reminded women of the risk of breast cancer and led some to seek out screening, and consequently resulted in increases in diagnoses,” says Kathryn Jacobsen.

In recent years, the researchers found little evidence of an increase in November diagnoses following October NBCAM events. According to researchers, this could actually be a good sign.

“In addition to showing a diminishing effect from NBCAM, the data indicate that the distribution of diagnoses over the calendar year has become more uniform,” says Grant Jacobsen, a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management. “Both of these findings suggest that women are now getting diagnosed as a result of routine screenings, as opposed to event-driven screenings.

“This is a good thing, since routine screening is likely to lead to earlier diagnoses,” he explains.

“Our study is actually good news for breast cancer advocacy,” he continues. “It suggests that breast cancer advocacy efforts have increased awareness of the need for regular screening among American women. There are other associated benefits beyond initial screenings that should perhaps be expanded now that the awareness campaign is mature.”


Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu