Cancer Awareness, by the Numbers

Like consumer products competing for sales on the open market, cancer research funding depends, in part, on public awareness of the cancer in question. The more people know about a particular cancer–especially when this knowledge is accompanied by compelling stories of individual cancer patients–the more enthusiastically they are likely to donate to the cause. Public awareness inspires gifts to charitable foundations and research organizations and, just as importantly, more advocacy for government-funded research.

RibbonfamilyNo organization understands the links among advocacy, awareness, and funding better than the National Breast Cancer Coalition, whose 600 members includes the powerhouse of cancer advocacy, the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  As a result of this coalition’s 25 years of work, October is celebrated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and people, places, and products have increasingly “gone pink” in October in support of funding for breast cancer research. (So much so, in fact, that there is a growing “pink backlash,” but that topic is complicated enough to warrant a separate post.)

The pink juggernaut has left public awareness of–and funding for–other cancers at a disadvantage. In 2010 (the latest year for which research funding data are available), the National Cancer Institute, the largest cancer research organization in the United States, spent $631.2 million on breast cancer research.  The “runner up,” prostate cancer research, received $300.5 million in the same year. Lung cancer research (which has the highest annual number of mortalities) received $281.9 million, and colorectal cancer was in fourth place at $270.4 million.

 Cancer Awareness Disparity

The “big four” cancers—breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal—comprise over 50 percent of total cancer diagnoses in the U.S. each year. In 2013, they are projected to account for almost 50 percent of the total deaths from cancer. Breast, prostate, and lung cancer each represent between 14 and 15 percent of total cancer diagnoses—all hovering around 230,000 cases each.

Colorectal cancer will account for approximately 9 percent of new cancer diagnoses in 2013—around 142,000 individual cases. (See table, below.)

One way to measure overall awareness of cancers is to compare the number of books available about each cancer type. Typing “prostate cancer books” into Amazon’s search engine in April 2013 produced 1,949 books (including mine) and articles. “Lung cancer books” yielded 1,150 results. “Colon cancer books” offered a mere 647.

Type “breast cancer books” into the same search box, and you can browse through 6,381 individual titles.  Of the total books pertaining to these four cancers at Amazon, 63 percent of them deal with breast cancer.

Google searches are another way informally to measure public awareness. Using Google’s advanced search feature in April 2013, I discovered that “breast cancer awareness” produces about 45,800,000 “hits,” dwarfing a mere 7,540,000 occurrences of “prostate cancer awareness.” Interestingly, lung cancer is in second place at 13,800,000 “hits,” doubtless owing to its notoriety in relation to tobacco.

Obviously, these are relatively crude metrics, but they do provide a numerical rationale for why most people don’t know that Prostate Cancer Awareness Month is September, that Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is March, or Lung Cancer Awareness Month is November. By contrast, most Americans know what October is all about.

A Proposed “Cancer Awareness Index”

I’ll explore the roots of breast cancer advocacy and its overwhelming success in subsequent posts. For now, I modestly propose a “Cancer Awareness Index” (CAI) that measures the public awareness levels of various cancers—and maybe other diseases, as well—based on the number of books available at, added to the number of Google search results for that type of cancer, normalized by the number of patients diagnosed per year.*  The table below shows the results:

All data accessed 4/11/2013





Estimated 2013 cancer diagnoses (per NCI SEER)  [Dg]





# Books reported by for “[type] cancer books” [Bk]





Google results for “[type] cancer awareness” [Se]





“Cancer Awareness Index” (CAI)





As we engineers would say, the breast cancer CAI is almost an order of magnitude greater than all the other cancers.

QUESTIONS: Is there any hope for advocates of other common cancers to achieve the level of breast cancer awareness?  Should they even try?  Why or why not?


* For each type of cancer (or cancer “site,” as the NCI terms it):

Bk cancer type = number of books reported by Amazon when “[type] cancer books” is typed in search box.

Se cancer type = number of results of phrase, “[type] cancer awareness”

Dg cancer type = number of persons diagnosed with [type] cancer in latest year per NCI SEER statistics.

*Cancer Awareness Index, CAI = Se/Dg + [1000xBk]/Dg


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