By Sandra Steingraber, ecologist and author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment
I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1979, at the age of 20, while my mom, in her 40s, was being treated for metastatic breast cancer. Like many cancer patients, I wanted to know Why me? Especially since I am adopted and could not rely on the stock explanation, “cancer runs in my genes.”
The newspaper headlines in 1979 offered me some clues. While still hooked up to the IV drip, I read about a place called Love Canal and an activist named Lois Gibbs who was arguing that underground pools of toxic waste in her upstate New York neighborhood were contributing to cancers and birth defects there. Further clues came from my own diagnosing physician, who asked me questions about my own possible environmental exposures.
Nevertheless, in the larger world where cancer patients live, there was—and still is—a silence about the environmental links to cancer. And there remains a huge disconnect between what the scientific community knows about environmental carcinogens (quite a lot) and what cancer patients are told (very little). I know this because I am a biologist as well as a cancer survivor. I sit on both sides of the table.
As a member of the scientific research community, I can tell you that chemicals linked to cancer are found in beauty products, plastics, and pesticides. They routinely turn up in food, air, and drinking water. And, as the President’s Cancer Panel concluded in 2010, environmental carcinogens play a much bigger role in the story of human cancer than has been previously appreciated. Yet, medical intake questionnaires—which cancer patients are forever filling out in waiting rooms across the United States—almost never inquire about the environments we’ve inhabited. And in the pamphlets on the waiting room shelves, the word carcinogen seldom appears.
How do we explain this disconnect? Why, in the face of so much evidence, does environmental amnesia persist? The organization who first answered these questions for me—and showed me how we might recover our collective memories—was Breast Cancer Action.
We need Breast Cancer Action and I’m proud to support their work. BCAction is the watchdog of the breast cancer movement. They relentlessly challenge conflicts of interest within the research community and fearlessly expose corporate hypocrisy within cancer awareness campaigns. They work to decrease our exposure to chemicals linked to cancer by demanding regulatory changes and legal reforms that adopt a precautionary approach to ban carcinogens from our daily lives in the first place.
I ask that you join me by giving generously to BCAction. It’s time to stop forgetting what we already know and to act on it.
P.S. If you’ve already made your year-end gift to BCAction, thank you so much for your support. We deeply appreciate it. If you’re inspired to make your year-end gift today, click here.
Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized authority on environmental health. Sandra’s highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment presents cancer as a human rights issue and was released in a documentary film in 2010. In 2011, Sandra received a Heinz Award for her research, writing, and advocacy.