October 9, 2012

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Actually, I hate the colour pink.

The girls' isles in toy stores creep me out. So when October comes around and there is an outburst of pink absolutely everywhere, even in the most unexpected places, in the shape of balloons, pins, socks, ski goggles, screwdrivers - I feel I have to wear my sunglasses all day.

Beside the pink, the whole "Awareness" thing saddens me. I mean, must we attain awareness only through buying the hoodie with the pink ribbon, or the make-up kit with the pink vynyl pouch, or the cookie with the pink frosting, the sale of all of which benefits cancer research? That's not awareness building: that's fundraising. At best. At worst, it's plain marketing.

Call me a naive, but it seems to me that too much emphasis is put on fighting cancer once it has arrived. But then it's already too late. Even screening for cancer, as useful as early detection can be, is not where the largest emphasis should lie.

Call me a hopeless naive, but I think the place where we really need to focus is on how to prevent cancer in the first place. We need to build awareness of what causes cancer, and what to do to minimise our risk. This takes more than "thinking pink" for a couple of days.

There is the work of getting informed. Following that, there is the difficult, day-to-day, unglamorous, ongoing task of risk reduction. Rather than buying things outfitted with a pink ribbon, it may involve not buying things. Saying no to cool things, yummy things, convenient things, attractive and desirable things. Things that have become a nearly inextricable part of our lives.

The call for prevention is worth shouting from the rooftops, year round. For this I would put on all the pink it would take.


Get the facts.

To start with, get informed. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation on breast cancer. Get over any fears you may have around this issue: knowledge is power

The Breast Cancer Action website summarises some key facts about breast cancer, and its link to environmental factors:

  • Seventy percent of people with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors. The so-called known risk factors, like late menopause, having children late in life, and family history of cancer are present in only 30 percent of breast cancer cases.
  • Non-industrialized countries have lower breast cancer rates than industrialized countries. People who move to industrialized countries from countries with low rates develop the same breast cancer rates of the industrialized country.
  • Estrogen is a hormone closely linked with the development of breast cancer. Numerous synthetic chemicals, called “xenoestrogens,” act like estrogen in our bodies, including common weed killers and pesticides, plastic additives or by-products, ingredients in spray paints and paint removers, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used extensively in the manufacture of food packaging, medical products, appliances, cars, toys, credit cards, and rainwear.

So genetic predisposition plays a smaller role than we were led to believe. On the other hand, environmental factors do play an important role.

Look at the list of products to avoid: all these are endemic, indeed pervasive, in industrialised societies. And a lot of the toxins in these items settle preferentially in fatty tissues, so breasts act like magnets for them, and tend to retain them. On the other hand, just as immigrants from non-industrialised countries can acquire an increased risk of cancer, by the same token it is possible for all of us to cleanse our systems: toxins don't hang around in our bodies forever.

It's easy to get discouraged by the length of the list. But consider this: our exposure to each individual toxin in each item is probably well within some safety margin. It is their combined effect, and especially their interactions, that cause havoc.

So even if you can't eliminate your exposure to all these toxins, you'd still come out way ahead if you manage to avoid as many as you can.

I will tell you straight up front (because I'm a truthloving geek and a naive one at that): it will require giving up on certain things. Ten-hour lip gloss, with pearl effect, is glamorous. Canned tomatoes are convenient. Oil-based paints do cover beautifully, and your brush strokes are never visible. Don't talk to me about those root-vegetable chips from that stay-fresh plastic bag.

There are alternatives. They either don't work quite as well, or require a lot more work on your part. Or both.

So what. These are our breasts we're talking about: they're part of who we are; we need them, for our babies - as well as for our own pleasure. We have better things to do with them than to offer them as housing for any toxins that happen to come along.

Besides, as we're cleaning up for ourselves, we're also cleaning up for our children, and their children. So here goes:

Risk Reduction Strategies

Your care and feeding:

  • Exercise!
  • Eat low on the food chain.
  • Choose "clean" foods. Organic is best. If you can't afford all-organic, find out which foods are the most toxin-prone, and buy those organic.
  • Avoid foods containing growth hormones.
  • Avoid processed foods with ingredients you can't pronounce.
  • Do not heat food in any plastic container.
    Non-stick pans are plastic containers.
  • Avoid storing food or drinks in plastic containers. Not even water. This holds especially for foods with a high fat content.
    Note: most cans come with a plastic lining inside.
  • Choose personal care products as clean of toxins as possible ("natural" is not a guarantee of "clean"). Your skin has a large surface area, and all of it is porous.
  • Wear clothing made of natural fibers.
  • Live slow. Get plenty of sleep.

Your home:

  • Use soap as your main household cleaner.
  • Keep air "fresheners" out of your house.
  • Avoid synthetic carpets (with that "new carpet smell").
  • Avoid upholstery with a no-stain finish.
  • Avoid synthetic stuffing for mattresses and sofas.
  • Keep a shoe-free house to keep from tracking in nasties on your shoes. Our soils are still laced with pesticides banned 30 years ago.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Avoid plastic toys for your children and your self.
  • Don't use weed killers and pesticides in your garden.
  • Don't drink from the garden hose (except figuratively).

Your car:

  • Your car is not your living room, nor your dining room, nor your bedroom. It's a box that gets you from A to B. Don't linger in it.
  • Avoid cars with the "new car smell" which indicates toxins outgassing from the car's plastic interior.
  • Try not to buy a new car for your new baby. If you must, put chemical cleanliness on your list of things to check. Air the interior of your new car often and well.

Other exposures:

  • Minimise radiation exposure: from deep-UV rays from the sun, from long-haul flights, from radon in the home, from medical procedures.
  • Don't sit down on lawns that have only grass: a lack of weeds is a sure sign of herbicide use.
  • Toxic chemicals at work: treat them with profound respect. Know your risks and your rights. Change your clothes when returning home.
  • Try to free your life of plastic.

In short, live like you're chemically sensitive. You are. You just may not know it yet.

And these tips benefit men as well as women: after all, we humans all have a finely balanced hormonal system that we don't want to mess with.

These choices are in our hands, made individually by us. Then there are larger environmental issues that are outside of our personal control. When voting with our dollars isn't enough, or doesn't bring change fast enough, we need to get actively involved. There are lots of opportunities to help push back against the rising tide of pesticides, fertilisers, plastics, dangerous food additives, and other toxins. As Liza Gross says, "Think pink? I'd rather raise a stink."

Pass it on.


Selected resources:

Breast Cancer Action: calling for breast cancer prevention

Keep A Breast: "prevention is the cure"

Pesticide Action Network: advancing alternatives to pesticides

Skin Deep Database: Huge number of personal care products rated on toxicity by the Environmental Working Group

Healthy Child Healthy World: working toward a clean world

Plastic Free: Beth Terry frees her life of plastic; both book and blog are full of practical tips and advice.

The Story of Cosmetics - Annie Leonard
Bag it! - Jeb Berrier
Plastic Planet - Werner Boote



  1. Yep, yep! Totally agree!

    And nurse your babies (assuming you're able). Nobody wants to talk about that, because we don't want to "tell people what to do." But it does women a disservice to NOT teach them that nursing their babies is actually good for their health!

    1. Thanks for the pointer, Rachel! I didn't know that about nursing: there's still more for me to learn...

  2. Bravo CelloMom!!! Excellent. You are right, no one talks about prevention. Hate to be a cynic, but I think it's because there isn't as much money in prevention and we are a "if I don't see it, it doesn't exist sort". I think it's difficult to educate people on these exposures and risks. Thank you for doing it so well.

    1. Thanks Kristina; maybe you're not cynical, but realistic. We need to stay aware of where all those messages come from; especially the ones urging us to buy. And yes, life would be so much easier if I just closed my eyes. But I can't. It's like with sex, drugs, and quantum mechanics: once you know about it, you never look at the world the same way again.

  3. Thanks for sharing on Tuesday Greens! Prevention is key!


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