An Open Letter to Cancer Support Charities

WHERE’S THE HEALTHY EATING MESSAGE?

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At this time of year, my social media timeline is awash with cancer support charities exhorting me to bake to help raise money for research.  It’s a phenomenon which has been growing every year; after my third breast tumour in seven years, I feel moved to say: ENOUGH.

First, let me make it clear:  you do great work, and I understand that you’re trying to make as much money as possible

Second, I adore cakes, cookies, muffins, flapjacks etc and I love baking.  I am no ‘clean eating’ orthorexic fanatic.  However, the photos of tables groaning with glucose-laden treats, all in the name of cancer fundraising, strikes me as really unhelpful, if not damaging to the cause.

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Yes, it’s good fun.  Yes, it raises money for research.

But it’s absolutely the wrong thing for cancer charities to encourage.

As I’m sure you’re aware, a healthy diet, along with not smoking and getting regular exercise, is the main factor recommended for avoiding cancer.  There is a solid evidence base linking obesity with a range of cancers.  So why put so much emphasis on fundraising from baked goods, whose every ingredient – refined sugar, white flour, saturated fat – tops the list of unhealthy foods?

People say, ‘What’s the harm in a village bake sale? Surely no one is going to get cancer from that.’

True. That isn’t the threat to public health.  The threat is in the message: ‘make and consume sweet foods to help in the fight against cancer’.

That message is utterly wrong, on several levels.

What would people think if a drug abuse charity raised funds by selling crack?  Or if a domestic abuse charity staged a boxing match to raise funds?  Promoting the consumption of sweets is incompatible with your group’s stated mission: the eradication of cancer.

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I write this letter to challenge you to adopt some healthier food-based fund-raising.  There is so much evidence for the power of food to weaken, starve and even destroy cancer cells.  Cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, turmeric, garlic, green tea, and many more have scientifically proven benefits.  Why not hold a recipe competition using these ingredients?  Why not encourage people to run pop-up anti-cancer cafés, serving food made with the recipes? Why not hold national curry evenings?  Or a competition to come up with the most luscious salads?

I don’t for one minute assert that broccoli has the same fascination as beautiful, colourful cakes, but surely this is the problem:  how will you ever change people’s behaviour, if you continue to glamourize the very thing that they should avoid?

And it’s not just cakes.  Macmillan sells bags of sweets in Nationwide branches to raise funds.

marie curie

I take no pleasure in raising this issue, and only do so after being alarmed by the explosion of cake-based fundraising adverts.  After three breast tumours in seven years, I’ve lost 1.5 stones and drastically reduced my sugar intake.  This doesn’t make me a better person.  ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ is my favourite TV program.  I miss sugary treats a lot.

This isn’t about demonising a single ingredient.  Cancer is far too complex for that.  This is about image and perception and aligning your organisation more closely with your cause.  It is simply not consistent to for a cancer charity to raise so much money from sweets. Your organisation should be leading the drive to improve the nation’s diet, not pandering to its weaknesses.

Cancer Research UK has come out in support of the sugar tax, and encouraged people to give up sugar for a whole month.  Shouldn’t the support charities be consistent with this initiative?

How is the public meant to make sense of these mixed messages?

I’m not saying that bake sales should be abandoned completely, but they should be far less prominent because cancer charities are becoming too closely associated with this form of fundraising.  I feel strongly that someone needs to point out this incongruity, in the hope that—at the very least—the organisations who do such good work will take a hard look at themselves.

I challenge you to do so, in the interests of the public good.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Vanessa Lafaye

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