Environmental Causes of Breast Cancer
Last fall, over 5,000 women joined forces at Husky Stadium for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's annual Race for the Cure. To the chagrin of the Race's organizers, 10 representatives from the Women's Health Action Network also attended, wearing black (for mourning), carrying signs which read "Cancer Prevention is Pollution Prevention," "Early Detection is not Prevention," and "There is no Cure."It was perhaps this last sign which sparked the most heated response from race staffers. As the women in black stood with their green signs at the finish line, two irate organizers charged over and demanded that the "protesters" leave."We're not protesting," responded Colleen Kelly of the Women's Health Action Network. "We're educating."In the past 30 years, the U.S. has poured $30 billion into the search for a "cure" for cancer. We're no closer than we were 30 years ago, and mounting numbers of people, particularly women, are contracting cancer -- particularly breast cancer.In the same 30 years, a body of evidence has accumulated indicating a correlation between the increased use of chemicals found in some plastics, pesticides, and bleached paper, and certain transformations in the endocrine system. These chemicals very well could be the cause of increased rates of breast and other cancers, endometriosis, declining sperm counts, and immune system dysfunction.By the year 2000, cancer is expected to kill one million Americans per year, overtaking heart disease as the leading cause of death. (This statistic brought to you by the American Cancer Society.)So: 30 years, $30 billion, no cure, and epidemic rates of breast cancer and mortality from breast cancer. What's wrong with this picture?What's wrong, purports the Women's Health Action Network, is that you can't "cure" cancer. Some individuals survive cancer; meanwhile our environment furiously makes victims of countless others. Since mid-century, we've pumped pollutants into the ocean, air, and land at an alarming rate, and our habitat is returning the favor.However, key participants in the so-called "war on cancer" -- particularly the American Cancer Society and the Komen Foundation -- are notably remiss in mentioning the environmental component of the cancer epidemic.THE CANCER EPIDEMICVirtually every nation in the world reports rising breast cancer rates, particularly among older women. Since the 1930s, industrialized nations have seen a steady increase in reported cases, somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two percent annually. In 1990, a report by the German Federal Health Office named cancer an epidemic, for the first time.Today even the most conservative scientists acknowledge that only 20 to 30 percent of breast cancer cases can be traced to "known causes" such as genetics (perhaps five percent) and diet. Smoking, of course, is a major culprit. Other factors to consider are alcohol consumption and exposure to nuclear radiation. Regarding the remaining 70 to 80 percent, however, experts express continued puzzlement.The increase in cancer might be partially explained by a greater emphasis on early screening: cancers that previously would have gone undetected are now counted. But this theory falls apart under the sheer weight of the victim list. It also fails to account for the rising mortality rate.On the home front, currently only lung cancer kills more people than breast cancer, which kills 42,000 women each year. Incidences have increased annually from the 1.2 percent growth seen between 1940 and 1982, to approximately four percent between 1982 and 1987. In 1969, my mother was 30. She faced a one-in-20 chance of contracting breast cancer.Today, I am 30; my chances are one-in-eight. I am 60 percent more likely to get it than Mom was at my age. But Mom's not expressing a whole lot of concern these days. She died in 1985. Cancer.DANGEROUS CHEMICALSIn 1964, the World Health Organization estimated that 80 percent of all cancers were caused by synthetic carcinogens. That same year, environmental writer Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring. She wrote: "As the tide of chemicals born of the Industrial Age has arisen to engulf our environment...every human being is subject to contact with dangerous chemicals from birth to death." Certain of those "dangerous chemicals," organochlorines, are a class of industrial agents made of chlorine and carbon. Their combination is basically indestructible, making it an ideal medium for industry.Organochlorines do not occur in nature. They are used to manufacture plastic and pesticides. The end-products put people in close contact with organochlorines, as do production procedures. Take paper, for example. Pulp and paper industries use chlorine bleaches to whiten paper. The process of bleaching (chlorine) paper (carbon) releases dioxin, one of the more deadly organochlorines. Your paper label is then slapped on your plastic container of food grown with pesticides, and...you get the picture.Much of the world the average person inhabits is riddled with organochlorines.Mounting evidence suggests that organochlorines are persistent, meaning once they enter your system, they do not go away. They are bioaccumulative, increasing in toxicity and magnitude as they move up the food chain. In the 1980s, this country annually produced 500 billion pounds of industrial chemicals, up from one billion pounds in 1940.In 1993, Greenpeace released a comprehensive report entitled "Chlorine, Human Health, and the Environment: The Breast Cancer Warning." The report cited 177 organochlorines found in tissues and fluids of humans and animals; 177 that simply did not exist 50 years ago.Toxins were found in individuals with a higher-than-normal exposure to synthetic chemicals -- chemical industry workers, those living near hazardous waste sites. It should be noted that the same toxins were found -- to lesser but still detrimental levels -- in those with no unusual chemical exposure.It seems women's bodies are particularly vulnerable to organochlorines due to high levels of estrogen production. This hormone turns cells "on" by stimulating cell receptor cites. When the requisite amount of cell activity has occurred, the body processes the estrogen, turning the cell "off."The molecular structure of certain synthetic chemicals, such as organochlorines, mimics estrogen in the body, creating a so-called "xeno" -- false -- estrogen. The body cannot properly process xeno-estrogen.When synthetic estrogen enters cell receptor sites, it inappropriately switches the cell "on," or even more dangerously, "on/off." The result is abnormal cell production."One cell divides into two; two cells divide into four," writes Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge. "Normal cells are consumed by abnormal ones. Over time, they congeal, consolidate, make themselves known. Call it a mass. Call it a tumor."At 34, Tempest Williams -- who counts herself among the clan of the one-breasted women -- became the matriarch of her family. "Most of the women in my family are dead," she writes. "Cancer."BURDEN OF PROOFSkeptics call it doomsaying to believe, as Rachel Carson did, in a tide of chemicals engulfing humanity. (Carson's mighty quiet on the subject these days. She died in 1964. Cancer.) Strict scientific minds -- and not-so-strict ordinary people who find the idea of an inhospitable habitat troubling and depressing -- ask organizations like Greenpeace and the Women's Health Action Network to "prove beyond a shadow of a doubt" the link between cancer and environmental pollution.Well, they can't. Just as the industries producing synthetic chemicals can't prove their products are not carcinogenic. In a perfect world, we would insist production cease until we had conclusive proof that these chemicals are benign.This should be the domain of agencies purporting to fight cancer. But ask the American Cancer Society and the Komen Foundation why the billions of dollars that have been raised -- in part by events such as Komen's Race for the Cure -- have failed to yield a cure or lower mortality rates. Ask them what they think about this unprovable connection between environmental pollution and cancer. Ask either the ACS or the Komen Foundation to send you a brochure on the subject.They can't. They haven't got one. They'll send you stacks of literature promoting early detection and advanced treatment, but count the number of times they mention the potential toxicity of the environment. You can't. They don't.THE CANCER ESTABLISHMENT"To fully understand the big picture," says Maia Syfers of the Women's Health Action Network, "you have to come from the point of view that we live in a free enterprise, profit-oriented society."First manufactured around the turn of the century, organochlorine production escalated during World War II. When the war ended, chemical companies turned to the domestic market. During the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Dow Chemical, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI -- to Europe what Dow is to the U.S.), Occidental Chemical, and the like made millions.When scientists started making connections between cancer and chemicalization in the early '60s, the industry instinctively turned to a business-as-usual philosophy, placing profitability above all else. As our health industry has become a for-profit business, so has the Cancer Establishment.Syfers cites the Big Four of the Cancer Establishment as responsible for the Ferris wheel of activity ostensibly aimed at ending cancer. In effect, they've locked themselves in a self-perpetuating, self-defeating cycle. According to Syfers, the Big Four are:1. Government Institutions: Established to set up research guidelines, conduct research, and grant money. Examples are the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control.2. Private Institutions: They conduct the major amount of research on cancer. Some biggies are Sloan/Kettering and Seattle's Fred Hutchinson. An inexorable financial link exists between private and government institutions.3. Private Industry: Chemical, chlorine, petroleum, and pharmaceutical. Make a lot of money.4. Nonprofit agencies: Primarily the American Cancer Society, also the Komen Foundation. Need a lot of money.FOLLOW THE BUCKA yearly budget of approximately $350 million renders the American Cancer Society one of the wealthiest nonprofit charitable agencies in the world -- as well they should be. For all practical purposes the ACS is funded and controlled by the highly profitable pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Board members are often executive directors and assorted higher-ups from those same companies.Deb Schiro, Program Manager for Detection of the the American Cancer Society's Seattle branch, says ACS's volunteer boards make all the decisions. "Staff lobbies, but can't vote," she explains. This doesn't bode well for those trying to find a real answer to the cancer epidemic."The people at the top understand money comes first," says Women's Health Action Network's Colleen Kelly. "They may have a place in their heart for people who are sick, and most of the people who work and volunteer for the ACS are well-meaning. But who is on the board is critical."Of late, the Komen Foundation finds itself largely funded by the Chlorine Chemical Council, the manufacturers' association for the chlorine industry. An internal CCC newsletter dated October 17, 1994, announced the CCC as a major Komen underwriter. The keynote speaker at Komen's October 21 awards luncheon was none other than J. Roger Hirl, head of Occidental Chemical.Thus did banners proclaim the Chlorine Chemical Council as a proud Komen Foundation sponsor at 1995's Race for the Cure.In addition to the intimate relationship between nonprofit organizations and their industry donors, the inner workings of industry are questionable. Imperial Chemical Industries, for example, used to own a subsidiary called Zeneca (now a separate company). Zeneca makes the "anti-cancer" drug Tamoxophin. Research shows Tamoxophin may shrink existing breast cancer tumors. There is no evidence demonstrating that Tamoxophin can prevent cancer, but there is some speculation that it causes cancerous growths in the liver and ovaries.Because Imperial Chemical and Zeneca have a lot to say about what the American Cancer Society promotes as anti-carcinogenic, it is not surprising the ACS strongly promotes Tamoxophin as a breast cancer preventative. They do not mention possible side-effects."The attitude is that the answer to breast cancer is another drug, not addressing the environmental causes," states Maia Syfers. "To take a drug is readily acceptable -- even if that drug is a possible carcinogen. And the fuel behind that is profit."It gets worse. There are two documented cases of the American Cancer Society suppressing evidence for the benefit of industry. In the first instance, a 1994 episode of Frontline ran a segment investigating the effects of pesticides on children, challenging the idea of "safe levels." Frontline argued that tests used only adult men to determine safety levels, whereas children are much more susceptible. In compiling a rebuttal, the pesticide industry quickly procured the services of a well-known P.R. firm, Porter-Novelli. Porter-Novelli went to a client for whom they had done pro bono work: The American Cancer Society. The ACS backed them up.In another instance, when Greenpeace issued its first report linking organochlorines to the worldwide cancer epidemic, the Chlorine Chemical Council threw together a statement demanding further proof. The statement was made by epidemiologist Dr. Clark Heath. Wouldn't you know, Clark Heath, M.D. is the Vice-President of Epidemiology and Surveillance Research for the American Cancer Society.The American Cancer Society earmarks 35 percent of its yearly $350 million budget for research, according to Deb Schiro. Rather than conducting original research, the ACS funds studies in universities and other private institutions, planting them firmly in the middle of the business-as-usual cycle perpetuating the Cancer Establishment.The chemistry making organochlorines the cornerstone of modern industry is as immutable as industry's dependence on organochlorines. The American Cancer Society's links to the Cancer Establishment prevent them from pursuing their mission statement, "...the elimination of cancer as a major health problem by prevention." How can they wholeheartedly advocate for true prevention when they are financially tied to industries producing organochlorines?PREVENTIONWhen asked to explain these cover-ups, American Cancer Society's Deb Schiro responded: "My guess is, in both cases, the ACS was probably advocating more research before jumping to any conclusions. My personal thinking is exposure to pesticides can result in cancer, but my personal opinion is not based on scientifically rigorous research. What is needed is peer-review research and multiple studies to see if there is a 'strong indication' of a relationship between a given substance and cancer. This method is slow and frustrating, but it is the only method that is scientifically sound."Cancer activist and writer Judy Brady is sick of this argument. "The call for more research is the most constant plea from the industry. The ACS is simply echoing the industry's favorite ploy."Brady doubts whether existing incestuous relationships would permit proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, although Schiro describes the ACS as a disinterested advocate for the American public."When we finally came out saying there was a link between tobacco and cancer," says Schiro, "people listened, precisely because we are conservative and slow-moving."Not surprisingly, the tobacco lobby put up huge resistance to the labeling of tobacco as a carcinogen. We can expect no less from industries deeply invested in organochlorines.ENDING BUSINESS AS USUALAt this juncture, organizations purporting to fight cancer need to stop their business-as-usual behavior. It is preposterous that the American Cancer Society is not on the forefront of the environmental movement. Equally ridiculous, the Komen Foundation doesn't offer a single piece of literature acknowledging the raging debate over synthetic chemicals.A well-meaning volunteer at Komen's Dallas headquarters says, "A lot of us suspect the environment does have a play in something to do with breast cancer development. We were just discussing that this morning. We get the most recent information from the ACS and the National Cancer Institute, and I don't have anything here on breast cancer and the environment."Not surprising when we remember who their major underwriter is. Komen neatly sidesteps issues affecting the Chlorine Chemical Council by stating that their mission is to provide support groups and resources for survivors, not to analyze the environment."There are other organizations for that," says one Seattle Race for the Cure organizer, demonstrating an appalling lack of perception about the Big Picture. (Particularly when their literature asks for donations to support "research" on breast cancer.)"It's become so clear that those talking about a 'cure' are industry pawns," says Judy Brady. "Those talking about primary prevention stand in opposition to the industry."Admittedly, if you are diagnosed today, you have a greater chance of surviving cancer than you did a generation ago -- providing, of course, you have access to early detection procedures and money for advanced treatment. But let's keep our definitions straight. Early detection is not prevention. Cancer detected in its early stages is still cancer. Advanced treatment is only needed by those who have cancer.Early detection and advanced treatment are responses to cancer. They are not preventative. True prevention involves a realistic look at the underlying causes of the epidemic, and doing what needs to be done to stop it.HOPEPerhaps this sort of dire realism is a bit much to ask of someone struggling to survive cancer. It's demanding on the average person, under the best of circumstances. It would certainly be more pleasant to spend a Sunday running a few miles in a symbolic race for the cure.Of course we should all continue to support the clan of one-breasted women. But we shouldn't ignore the difference between reacting to the crisis and seeking a real solution. Ask organizations for whom you raise money do the same. If you give them your money or time, ask that they support legislation calling for a complete ban on synthetic chemical production. (To date, neither the American Cancer Society nor the Komen Foundation has supported any such legislation.) Ask if they think it's a conflict of interest to accept large sums of money from industries producing organochlorines.Most of all, even though the odds are overwhelming, don't give up hope. Israel banned use of the pesticide DDT and within the decade saw a marked decrease in breast cancer rates. Imagine this occurring on a worldwide, poly-pollutant level.Hope goes a long way toward making a survivor, and symbolic acts of strength and beauty generate hope. Maureen Koch -- the first breast cancer survivor to complete last fall's Race for the Cure -- was the very definition of survivor as she charged across the finish line, loaded for bear.But the Women's Health Action Network, who stood on the sidelines that morning, make an increasingly urgent point. Agencies like the American Cancer Society and the Komen Foundation, that focus on early detection and advanced treatment, don't help the staggering numbers of women worldwide who will contract breast cancer. It is time for us all to stop pretending the cure is sitting out there waiting to be discovered. There is no cure. But there is an answer.