The Coastal Post - March, 1999

Breast Cancer In Marin Considered Epidemic

By Carol Sterritt

On KQED FM's radio program, "Fresh Air" on February 18, Teri Gross asked a question of a nationally-known cancer expert. The question, she claimed, was one constantly on her mind and on the minds of most women over the age of 40. "It seems that everyone my age either has breast cancer or knows someone who has it. Is breast cancer on the rise?"

The expert answered that although it may seem that way, statistics still remain at one out of nine, or possibly one out of eight, women having breast cancer in their lifetime. These days others are reciting less optimistic statistics, including one study that says a person's chances of any type of cancer are now one in three. The Marin Chapter of Breast Cancer Watch considers the breast cancer program in Marin County to be an epidemic. Breast cancer rates here are among the nation's highest. Many theories abound as to why this is so. The theories include the fact that in an area where many career-driven, affluent women postpone their first pregnancy and consequent lactation, the protection of early pregnancy and lactation are missing, and such women face a greater risk.

Another study indicates that in low-lying, sea-level altitude areas such as Marin and Long Island, New York (another place with a high breast cancer rate), the porous surroundings of marshland areas may have a negative effect on a woman's breast health (although that effect is not fully understood).

The establishment press often puts a positive spin on this particular health issue. Rarely will anyone in the traditional media report the one-in-three statistic, preferring the one-in-nine or one-in-eight, perhaps because it makes for a cheerier sound bite. Insurance companies do not seem convinced; both health and life insurance rates are much higher at or around a woman's 50th birthday.

As worrisome as the skewing of statistics are, equally hideous are misrepresentations regarding the causes of breast cancer. A recent 15-minute segment of NBC Magazine (video information program) emphasized again and again that "researchers have concluded that there are only two factors to seriously consider when examining the breast cancer issue": the age and genetic makeup of the individual.

The NBC presentation went on to state that researchers were all in agreement that neither diet or lifestyle were significant factors when determining a woman's chances of developing cancer.

Interestingly, these researchers were not identified either in particular or en masse. They were merely an omniscient, ubiquitous population of non-specific researchers, sometimes referred to with the inclusive adjective "all." If they were researchers employed by one specific industry or another, or one specific university or another, that was not made clear.

Troubled by this lack of clarification, I mused, how, in the old days of the late '60's and '70's, newscasters would at least credit the latest "cigarette smoking will in no way harm you" study as coming from one or another of the tobacco corporations. Although it was less than honest that yesteryear's newscaster did not mention that this corporation was indeed a major advertiser for their network, at least the study was not given the full authority of the ubiquitous "every researcher" now prevalent. In those days, major corporations merely advertised on networks. Today, major corporations own the networks.

And if NBC Magazine had troubled itself to note the academic pedigree of its researchers, would that fact have offered us any reassurance? Perhaps not. Recently a major pesticide developer, Novartes, awarded the UC universities some $50 million to enable their researchers to examine breast cancer causes and models for treatment. These researchers will find it difficult to remain independent. Only a strong-willed individual will allow his or her research to fully investigate the role of endocrine disrupters such as pesticides, herbicides, et al, when the research monies are controlled by those producing the offending substances.

Fortunately for us in Marin, several excellent resources assist us in examining the breast cancer issue. These include such organizations as Marin Breast Cancer Watch, Commonweal, and Marin Beyond Pesticides. These groups disseminate knowledge, offer support groups, and sometimes spin the wheels of the political scene to a healthier advantage.

In December, 1998, after a 20-month struggle, Marin Beyond Pesticides saw its Pesticide Reduction and Elimination Ordinance signed into law by the County Board of Supervisors. The ordinance puts forth strategies to reduce and eliminate pesticides on County Open Space areas and inside the Civic Center building.

Many of those involved in Marin Beyond Pesticides are chemically sensitive to the ingredients in weed sprays and toxins currently in use in Marin. Coincidentally, while the group was campaigning for the ordinance, research was made public identifying the "inert" elements in everyday poisons. This research identified (with the full names) many of these inerts, and concluded that they are as toxic or even more toxic than the ingredients more clearly labeled on the product. Despite their title, inerts are not static, inactive substances. Instead, they are as likely as the named ingredients to trigger allergies or have possible carcinogenic or mutagenic effects. Unfortunately, the inerts often comprise up to 95% of the products they are in (everything from tile and shower cleaners to bug spray to herbicides). That this research was released at all is astounding: corporations have been tight-lipped regarding the chemical names of most inerts, claiming that releasing the names would violate their need for trade secrecy.

With the Pacific Ocean as is front yard, Commonweal is another local resource. Located in Bolinas, it serves as a health and environmental research center. It also offers retreats for people with cancer. Browsing through Director Michael Lerner's book, Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer (MIT Press), it is possible to find several studies relating to cancer risk prevention through informed nutrition choices. These studies come from such eminent institutions as the American Cancer Society, the National Academy of Science, and the National Cancer Institute. (Perhaps NBC Magazine had never heard of these studies when they stated that no one anywhere had discovered diet to be a risk component in the development of cancer?)

These three research centers concur that a high fat diet is linked to an increased incidence of certain cancers (breast cancer among them). They concur that a low-fat diet is associated with a lower incidence of breast and several other cancers. They recommend that the average American attempt to reduce their fat intake from 40% to 30% of food eaten. The three centers also encourage individuals to include fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their diets. In addition, the American Cancer Society advises eating high-fiber foods and to include foods rich in vitamin A and C.

Lerner's book also discusses the quandaries of the cancer patient in terms of choosing a specific treatment with or without other treatments, and he compares the health system in the U.S. with the European approach. The humanness of the book's tone, and the rare intelligence with which the discussions are undertaken, double the reader's pleasure: information with humanity is a rare find.

Marinates who have turned to Marin Beyond Pesticides, Commonweal or to Marin Breast Cancer Watch discover that in addition to becoming better informed, they have gained a marvelous support group. Historically, the scientific world has labeled those with chemical sensitivities as having a mental rather than a physical problem. Marin Beyond Pesticides helps its members keep their sanity. Once an individual realizes that there are others in their predicament, his or her personal power is restored. Commonweal provides the solace necessary not only for patients with life-threatening illness but for their care-givers as well. The Marin Breast Cancer Watch offers a support group and information-packed meetings. It is important that no one walks alone, unless that is their choice, during times of illness, intense therapies and an uncertain future.
Marin Beyond Pesticides
Ginger Souders-Mason
456-2849
Commonweal
868-0970
Marin Breast Cancer Watch
256-9011

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