Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the last day of October. Happy Halloween! Fall is here, and it should be pretty easy to tell: the leaves are turning, it’s getting darker earlier than ever, canned pumpkin is on sale at the grocery store, and my Pavlovian response seems to have kicked in where the air temperature causes me to develop an intense craving for candy corn every time I step outside.
In addition to these many other distinctions given to the month of October, it’s also breast cancer awareness month. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen plenty of marketing for this effort. Pink cupcakes, ribbon bagels, specialized perfumes and jewelry – it seems that now more than ever, companies are jumping on the bandwagon. All of these product sales are intended to raise both awareness and funding, which will go towards research efforts to treat and cure breast cancer. This is, in many ways, a noble cause. The statistics about how many women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year are staggering: according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health, 230,480 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Over 39,000 of these will die. And these statistics cannot speak to the emotional toll caused by breast cancer in families around the country on almost a daily basis- to those diagnosed, to the families that support them, and to those who lose a loved one.
Before I proceed with this post, I’d like to share a fact about myself and my own life: my dad is currently undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and has been a survivor since 2006. He’s been through three rounds of chemotherapy, several doses of radiation treatment, and a stem cell transplant to treat three different flavors of cancer. The research efforts and funding that have gone towards treatment for all forms of cancer are the reason he is alive today, and I would never speak negatively about these efforts.
What bothers me, though, is that all of these efforts – awareness, funding, research, treatment, marches and walks – all focus on the cure. We want to cure cancer. We want to make it so that anyone who is diagnosed with breast cancer, or any other form of cancer, no longer hears the word as a death sentence. But for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be anyone talking about another possibility: prevention.
Each of encounters in our daily lives more than 6,000 chemicals, present in our homes, household goods, our air and water, and even the food we eat. Some estimates suggest that 60 – 70% of what we are exposed to externally is absorbed through our skin, and independent studies have found that average adults have low levels of more than 100 contaminants inside their bodies. Chemicals that have been proven carcinogenic are found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the containers in which we store our food and water. Many of these chemicals are unregulated, because our regulatory system assumes that a compound is safe until proven otherwise, or is just too slow to keep up with the hundreds of new products industries produce every day.
But what doesn’t make sense to me is this: we will raise tens of thousands of dollars to support breast cancer awareness, and yet we let unknown chemicals seep into our groundwater without speaking a word. Hundreds of hormones, prescription medicines, and unregulated byproducts are found in our drinking water – even the stuff that’s treated. If you live in the D.C. area, you might not realize that an alarmingly high percentage of fish in the Potomac River today are born hermaphroditic; an effect that has been linked to unregulated compounds in our water. Many of these chemicals haven’t even been around long enough for anyone to conduct a true longitudinal study on their effects across a decade or longer, or for anyone to analyze what the impacts might be from long term exposure in small doses. Some of them that we are exposed to are “trade secrets,” chemicals that industry is not required to disclose to the government or the consumer.
Yet we do nothing. We say nothing. We quietly accept that we put our health, every day, at the mercy of those who control our air, water, and food. Corporations. Government regulations.
And then, we wonder why it is that one in three Americans alive today will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Why there are almost 40,000 families that will lose a loved one this year because of breast cancer. There’s a chance that it’s just a coincidence; there’s a chance that constant, low-level exposure to both known carcinogens and chemicals with unknown effects is unrelated to these statistics. But with so much on the line, I can’t understand why we think that’s a chance worth taking. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking just about being pink and a little bit more about being green, too.