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An ounce of prevention, please

Kristin Schafer's picture

For the past month, pink ribbons have been everywhere — along with bracelets, shoes, t-shirts, even pink KFC buckets.

Yet for all this colorful breast cancer awareness, somehow we're still not talking about one of the key things we can do to prevent the disease: stop eating, drinking and breathing cancer-causing chemicals.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Scientists tell us there's plenty of evidence linking chemical exposure with cancer. Astonishingly, a conversation about this kind of prevention simply wasn't part of the mix. 

There were a few notable exceptions. Our friends at Breast Cancer Action, The Breast Cancer Fund and Clean Water Action all made a strong case for moving beyond awareness toward prevention. But otherwise the issue was largely ignored — despite a recent report from the  President's Cancer Panel finding that Americans are exposed to too many pesticides and other chemicals that cause cancer.

The Cancer Panel scientists also found that previous estimates of the role environmental contaminants play in causing cancer were much, much too low. They reported startling long-term impacts of exposure, like the fact that girls exposed to DDT during puberty were 5x more likely to have breast cancer in middle age.

They were so concerned by their findings that they went way out on a limb and actually called on President Obama to do something about it, urging him to "use the power of your office to remove carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air."

Sadly, the White House appears to be ignoring the Panel's recommendations.

This year's presidential proclamation marking National Breast Cancer Awareness Month includes not a word on the role of environmental contaminants in causing the disease.

"Our sense is that the recommendations in a remarkable report are being actively ignored by the Administration," writes PAN board member Dr. Ted Schettler and his colleagues Dr. Sandra Steingraber and Dr. Richard Clapp after their meeting with White House staff about the report. "A great opportunity to prevent cancers through better environmental protections may be lost."

Meanwhile, the science keeps rolling in. Here are just a handful of recent, interesting examples:

  • University of California's Breast Cancer & Chemicals Policy Project published Pathways to Breast Cancer, a report proposing new ways to evaluate how chemicals contribute to breast cancer.
  • 50,000 women have enrolled in the national "Sister Study," which tracks women whose sisters have had breast cancer and evaluates the contribution of both genetic and environmental factors to the disease.
  • Scientists in the UK reported that cancer was virtually nonexistent in the ancient world, based on examination of almost a thousand mummies from Egypt and South America.
  • The Breast Cancer Fund's annual State of the Evidence report (mentioned here a couple of weeks ago) looks carefully at the latest science about the links between chemical exposures and breast cancer.

We all know the stakes are high. One of every 8 women can expect to develop breast cancer. And while survival rates are improving, it's still the leading cause of death among women in their late 30s to early 50s. As anyone who's life has been touched by the disease knows, anything we can do to prevent the devastation of cancer should be a national priority. Now.

Next week I'll travel to Washingon DC to deliver PAN's petition urging Mr. Obama to listen to his cancer scientists. Thanks so very much to all of you who signed on; we'll let you know how it goes. 

Kristin Schafer
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lanilu's picture
lanilu /
As I sit here at the San Diego Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico with a room full of people all diagnosed with cancer of one variety or another, I am overwhelmed and inspired all at the same time. We are here because we know that we have cancer. We are here because we know we need to get rid of it. We are here because the places we come from - mostly Canada and the US, though Venezuela is represented as well - don't have a lot of options for us. I know that keeping cancer out of our bodies in the first place should be the goal. But for those of us unlucky ones (as Kristin points out, one in 8 will get this junk in our life times) who've already got it, we've got to pull out all the stops to manage it. What we know from the work of PANNA is how cancer enters our bodies. And we also know from PANNA that this crap is preventable. All we have to do now is convince the powers that be to just knock it off, knock it out. From my perspective, it's simple. Just stop the insanity. The San Diego Clinic sees cancer as a multifaceted problem. And they have collected many solutions from around the globe to manage cancer. It is possible. There are options. We have to keep working. Those of us lucky enough to know there are solutions are going to come out ahead. I just wish we didn't have to deal with it in the first place.
Kristin Schafer's picture
Kristin Schafer /
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and story, lanilu! And agreed - "not dealing with it in the first place" is the ultimate goal here. Because like anyone battling through cancer treatments toward health, I'm very sure you have better things to do.
Kristin Schafer's picture

Kristin Schafer was PAN's Executive Director until early 2022. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin was at PAN for over 25 years. Before taking on the Executive Director role in 2017, she was PAN's program and policy director. She was lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children's health. She continues to serve on the Policy Committee of the Children's Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN