As much illness and death as cancer

Sexual, physical, and psychological violence cause as much illness and death among women ages 15-44 as cancer.
-Executive Summary, 2003

This is an impressive statistic. We all know someone who has had cancer. In fact, we could probably name upwards of two dozen people we know who have had cancer, even those small, localized skin cancers that you get removed and don’t have to worry about anymore—they heal quickly and seem like a non-issue. Try making a list of people. It’s pretty amazing how readily the names come to mind once you get going. Go ahead and stop after a dozen, though; after that, it can get overwhelming. Chances are, some of the people on your list are people who you care deeply about and who you have supported during their suffering.

But what about sexual, physical, and psychological violence? How many people do you know who have been victims of these kinds of violence? You probably know far more people than you realize. After all, there as many illnesses and deaths caused by sexual, physical and psychological violence (among women ages 15-44) as there are caused by cancer. Why is there such a dramatic discrepancy between the number of people you know in each category, even after considering age and sex? The difference is probably because we don’t talk about sexual, physical, and psychological violence like we talk about cancer. Discussing and fighting cancer are socially acceptable. When it comes to addressing the issues of domestic (and non-domestic) violence and sexual assault, things are a lot more taboo and there is a lot more gray area.

Consider the following scenario: you’re at the grocery store when you run into a friend who you haven’t seen for a month or so. Last week, you learned that a mutual friend of yours, Mary, was diagnosed with cancer and will be starting chemo in a few weeks. You say to your friend, “By the way, have you heard about Mary?” “No, what about her?” “She just found out that she has cancer.” “How bad is it?” “We’ll have to wait and see. She starts chemo in a few weeks. There are a few of us who are coordinating dinners for her, since she might not feel up to cooking during her chemo.” The scenario seems plausible enough, right?

What if we changed it around a bit. What if, instead of having learned of Mary’s hypothetical cancer diagnosis, you learned that she is being abused by her husband? How would you have heard about this in the first place? Chances are, Mary’s husband has also been isolating her from friends and family, making it even more unlikely that Mary would be able to share her seemingly shameful secret with you. Even if she did tell you—and she said that it was okay to tell others, would you tell your friend? If you did tell her, would it be out of genuine concern for Mary or would it feel more like gossip? If you shared the news, would you have arranged some way to support Mary like you did with the dinner plans when she had cancer? (Just so that YOU know, my goal here is NOT to make you feel guilty; it is to illustrate how strongly we are all affected by the societal taboos and judgments that surround domestic violence.) As mentioned earlier, there is a lot more gray area in dealing with incidents of violence and supporting victim/survivors. But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid helping them; we just need to know that the situation needs to be approached with kindness and compassion and with a non-judgmental attitude. Because acts of violence, like cancer, cause a great deal of illness and death and the people going through either experience need and deserve support.

And neither condition is uncommon. We have probably all heard the statistics about sexual assault, for example: 1 in 4 college women is raped during her time in college; 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007). (For men, the chances of being sexually assaulted are 1 in 33). Keep in mind that these are only acts of sexual violence; physical violence is a much broader category. And psychological violence is broader, still. Often, it’s hard to even recognize that you’re being psychologically or emotionally abused because the abuse doesn’t leave physical marks. What’s the point here? The point is that you know a lot of people, especially women, who have been victims of sexual, physical, and psychological violence, whether you—or they—know it or not.

So, as we asked above, why are you aware of so many more people who have had cancer than people who have been victims of violence? The probability of having cancer isn’t that much higher than the probability of being a victim of violence, is it? No! In fact, it appears that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than they are to develop cancer! Consider a woman’s likelihood of getting breast cancer, the most common form of cancer (aside from non-melanoma skin cancer) for females: according to the American Cancer Society, “The chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some time in a woman’s life is a little less than 1 in 8 (12%)” (Key Statistics for Breast Cancer, 2009). Even if we consider all forms of cancer, a female’s probability of developing an invasive cancer from birth to age 39 is 1 in 48(American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures, 2009). Between the ages of 40 and 59, the probability is 1 in 11. It’s not until women are 70 and older that their chances (1 in 4) of having cancer equal or exceed their chances of being sexually assaulted. Only a woman’s lifetime probability of getting cancer (1 in 3) exceeds her lifetime probability of being sexually assaulted.

But why do these numbers matter? Clearly, the probability of being sexually assaulted and the probability of getting cancer are both too high. Much is being done to address the issue of cancer. Think about all the money that goes towards research to improve treatment and find a cure. Consider all the prevention tips that you hear: wear sunscreen to protect yourself from skin cancer! Do a monthly breast self exam to help with early detection of breast cancer! Remember that smoking increases your chances of getting a variety of cancers, especially lung cancer! We offer similar advice to young women for avoiding violent crimes: don’t walk alone at night! Carry a rape whistle and/or pepper spray! In addition to sweeping the issue under the rug and not talking about acts of violence like we do about cancer, another critical difference is that acts of violence are something that are done by one person to another person. In other words, they are intentional.

Clearly, no one wants to get cancer or be the victim of sexual, physical, or psychological violence. However, the preventative efforts for acts of violence are minimal, compared to what we do to raise awareness about cancer. So what do we do? Well, for starters, we can take a stand and say that just as I will not give someone cancer, I will not make someone a victim of violence. In addition, we can be more aware of the fact that far more of the people we know have been victims of violence than we realize. By keeping this in mind, we can be sensitive to the potential and often silent struggles of those around us. If we maintain a warm, supportive attitude, we may find people opening up to us, asking for the support that they need and deserve. In addition, we can make a concerted effort to support those who we already know have been victimized. This can take many forms: quietly listening and withholding judgment, helping the victim find the professional support that he or she needs to heal, or simply avoiding sexist or violent jokes and remarks. One of the most important things that all of us can do is to talk about the issue of violence, to remind people that it does happen and that no one is immune. Think about the progress that breast cancer awareness campaigns have made; with enough time and effort, we can bring violence out of the shadows and into the daylight, reminding the world that (1) this happens, (2) survivors who have already been victimized need our support, and (3) we can make a difference and stop it from continuing.


American Cancer Society, (2009). What are the key statistics for breast cancer?. Retrieved from
American Cancer Society, (2009). Cancer facts and figures 2009. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, (2007). Understanding sexual violence. Retrieved from

Executive Summary, (2003). Beyond victims and villains: Addressing sexual violence in the education sector, Women’s International Network News, 29(3), 37-38