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Do Breasts Starve The Baby?

Appearing Monday on the Ellen DeGeneres show, Hillary Clinton made another bold campaign promise: to cure breast cancer within a decade. If elected, she pledged a $300 million annual commitment to research into the disease, which killed some 40,000 women last year and is said to afflict 240,000 individuals annually.

Breast cancer research is certainly a worthy cause--not least because the hundreds of thousands of women who are stricken with it represent hundreds of thousands of families for whom the female center is vital. But it has been a watershed set of decades for breast cancer researchers, who find the funding game lucrative indeed. Aside from the robust support of federal institutes like the NIH, Americans have privately dropped millions of dollars into campaigns similar to Clinton's, that promise to do right by our cousins, aunts, and sisters. And the orgy of pink that marks October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month--handbags, teabags, bracelets and mugs--keeps ill women in our minds year-round.

As a result, we are very, very good at handling the threat of breast cancer. The high incidence of breast cancer (compared with, say pancreatic cancer) notwithstanding, past large-scale investments in the disease have given most oncologists a clear, flexible battle plan when it comes to this particular cancer. I say this from personal experience watching my mother work with countless terrified and sick patients. Over the last several years, clinical research (2375 ongoing studies) has shown that a strategic combination of medication, radiation and surgery can get a hold on all but the most aggressive late-stage forms of breast cancer. Counseling for genetic and behavioral risk factors has made diagnosis and treatment even more precise.

I point this out not to suggest that breast cancer funding is starving the baby. If it were, it wouldn't be doing so alone. Prostate and colon cancers, for some, also sap great amounts of federal and private giving. But the lack of funding for other, less media-friendly (and I hate to turn a life-threatening illness into a PR machine) diseases like multiple myeloma or osteosarcoma--not to speak of sickle-cell disease or asthma, or anything--make such financial favoritism seem against the interest of general scientific knowledge.

Clinton's breast money will be funneled toward the NIH, the National Cancer Institute, and the Medical Research Program run by the Defense Department. Frankly, (and back to the campaign) I'd love to know Elizabeth Edwards' response to this initiative and the general debate on resource allocation in medical research. Perhaps we'll see her blogging about it from the Center for American Progress, which she has just joined as a senior fellow.

--Dayo Olopade