27/10/2011 19:49 BST | Updated 27/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Do we Really Need Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

Almost everyone knows someone who's been affected by breast cancer. It's the most common cancer in the UK, and every day around 130 women are told they have the disease. Tragically, as the UK population gets older, that number is set to rise.

Earlier this year, we published new figures that showed the "lifetime risk" of breast cancer - the chances that a woman will have had breast cancer at some point over the course of her life - have now risen to one woman in eight.

Given these figures, aren't we "too aware" of breast cancer? Do we really need an annual "awareness" month, with all its associated pink paraphernalia and celebrity jamborees, when we're all touched by the disease in some way?

The answer to this question - which we're asked every year - is emphatically, unquestionably "yes". And here's why.

Survival is improving but there's a way to go

Firstly, annual campaigns have helped the disease buck a trend. Almost as regular as media coverage of breast cancer awareness month are the "sick man of Europe" stories in the media, highlighting the UK's poor showing in the European survival league tables. Stats published last year by the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (in which Cancer Research UK plays a key role) show that, for the types of cancer they looked at, we're still lagging too far behind.

One key reason is that - all too often - cancers are spotted later in the UK than in the best-performing countries. And being diagnosed later means a poorer prognosis. Improving this state of affairs could avoid up to 10,000 premature cancer deaths a year.

So how does breast cancer fit into in this picture? Unlike some other cancers, the UK's breast cancer survival rates have risen dramatically as more women beat the disease - and increased awareness of screening, of symptoms, and of the need to see the doctor if something feels wrong, are all part of the reason why. Although it's one of the UK's 'most improved' major cancers, we need to keep beating the breast awareness drum if we're to maintain this progress.

Access to better treatment

Aside from earlier diagnosis, there's another reason for the UK's recent survival spurt, which brings us to the second reason we need good awareness of breast cancer: better treatments.

While no single breakthrough is behind this, thanks to the fruits of decades of research - much of which has been driven by Cancer Research UK's scientists - we now have better radiotherapy and surgery, and drugs like tamoxifen.

This drug - which targets the 75% of breast cancers that are sensitive to oestrogen - has been called "the most important drug in the history of medical oncology", and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. As our researchers unpick the molecular links between oestrogen and breast cancer, more improvements such as aromatase inhibitors are in the pipeline.

But what about the 25% of women who don't have hormone-sensitive breast cancer? We urgently need to develop new treatments to help them. Trastuzamab (Herceptin) - one of a new generation of "targeted" therapies - is available for some, but we need more. Pressure to develop new therapies for the minority of women for whom treatments haven't changed since the 60s is essential. Our researchers are on the case.

Lifestyle factors

But as the cliché goes, prevention is better than cure. Although cancer is intimately linked to our genes, our lifestyles can make a difference.

Breast cancer awareness also means making sure everyone knows that the disease is more common among women who drink more alcohol, and who are overweight after the menopause. Changes in our lifestyles have doubtless contributed to the rise in the number of women diagnosed. Improving awareness of what a woman can do in her thirties to make a difference to her sixties is crucial.

Funding future research

So we need to keep working on 'the breast cancer problem'. And to do so, we need to raise money - the fourth reason why breast cancer awareness month is so important.

This year we launched our "Frock Breast Cancer" campaign, calling on women across the UK to don their most glamorous outfit to raise money for the cause. And with fantastic support from a range of companies, we also sell a wide range of pink products in high street shops and our online store. The money we raise will go towards our cutting edge research so we can continue the progress that, as the UK's largest funder of breast cancer research, we've made so far.

But what about the rest?

These improvements pay testimony to the survivors, researchers, charities, celebrities, corporations and politicians who have joined together to try to solve a problem. But there are more than 200 types of cancer, and although some have seen improvements, others are nothing to cheer about. Survival rates for lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancers have been static for decades. We need action on these too.

Cancer Research UK is the only UK charity to support research that can tackle every type of cancer - including those that seldom make it into the spotlight. As the pink glow of breast cancer awareness month fades, November sees us focus on lung cancer - the UK's biggest cancer killer. As well as new treatments and better ways to spot the disease, we need continued political pressure on the tobacco industry, in the form of measures like plain packaging for cigarettes, if we're to curb the tragic death toll from this disease. And, after November, December will see us focus on children with cancer, in our Little Stars awards.

The achievements of breast cancer awareness month, far from being dismissed, must serve as template for other cancer types. They show that, slowly but surely we can get there. But we need to raise all the boats to the same level if we're to achieve our vision that, one day, together, we will beat cancer.

Read more from Henry and Cancer Research UK's bloggers on the charity's Science Update blog.