Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another friend with breast cancer

A friend has just been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. She has a young daughter.

While I pretend to teach science in the classroom, quite a few of the young women I teach today will lose a breast (or two) in the next few decades because of environmental factors.

I remember the first breast I saw no longer attached to the body it once helped define. I had seen body parts in various forms before, but this one was fresh. A flap of sallow skin with a wizened nipple defining it, a long trail of fibrous fatty tissue trailing off the slab.

The pathologist, smoking as he dictated, handled the breast like a butcher handles meat about to be weighed, though not as kindly.

Incidences of breast cancer change in populations as people migrate from one area of the world to another, suggesting that environmental factors contribute to this disease. There is a continuing effort at the NIEHS to identify these environmental factors and the role that exposures to specific chemicals could play in this disease.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH


I shaved my mother's head when her cancer recurred--bony metastases in her skull made the shaving more difficult. She walked like a marionette the weeks before she died. In a radiology reading room, we'd call them "goobers." Goobers on the brain.

Unless it was one of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends--then they were metastases.

Since 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has been the sole funder of October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Zeneca has promoted a blame-the-victim strategy to explain away escalating breast cancer rates, which ignores the role of avoidable carcinogens. Zeneca's parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of petrochemical and chlorinated organic products -- including the plastic ingredient, vinyl chloride -- which has been directly linked to breast cancer, and the pesticide Acetochlor.

In addition, Zeneca is the sole manufacturer of Tamoxifen, the world's top-selling cancer drug used for breast cancer. In return for funding the "awareness" campaign, ICI/Zeneca has control and veto power over every poster, pamphlet and commercial produced by NBCAM. "A decade-old multi-million dollar deal between National Breast Cancer Awareness Month sponsors and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) has produced reckless misinformation on breast cancer," said Dr. Epstein.

"Chemical Industry Funds Breast Cancer Campaign"
Cancer Prevention Coalition

The media focuses on the strength of cancer survivors, and I have seen tremendously strong women live and die graciously through months and years of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery. The magazines will show glossy pictures of proud women, and these things matter, of course. Avon will sell "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer Lipsticks," Mars, Inc., will sell you pink and white M&M's, and General Electric will sell you a Senographe 2000D mammographer.
They do not show a mother cowering in her bathroom, her bald head bare, blood all over the toilet from a nosebleed that will not stop, her teen-age son standing awkwardly, bravely holding her head.

They do not show the vomiting, the pain, the fear. They do not show a mother with her arm in a machine trying to squish out the fluid building up from lymphedema. They do not show the bony protuberances on a skull, the smell of dying cells.

They do not show a child wiping her mother clean because she is too proud to use a bedpan and too weak to use a toilet.


polychlorinated biphenyls


polychlorinated dibenzodioxins.

In 1991, these were the 6 most common carcinogens found in breast milk. The news has gotten worse since then. We are at the top of the food chain--toxins accumulate.

It has been known that breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed your babies, the lower the risk. This has been attributed to hormonal changes related to breastfeeding--breastfeeding women cycle less, and had less exposure to estrogen.

There has been speculation (and it is only speculation), that breastfeeding may help reduce the chemical pollutant load on the mother. Guess who gets the chemicals?

The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer was just less than 10% in the 1970's, or 1 in 10; it is now 13.4%, or almost 1 in 7 (NCI, 2005). In the 1940's, the risk was 1 in 22. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women 34 to 54 years of age.


Janet Jackson flashes a breast, and our Federal government rushes in to redefine obscene. Certain words and phrases will cost lots of money.

Here's an obscene phrase that won't cost anything--in fact, every October you hear it dozens of times:

Early Detection is the Best Protection.

This makes no sense--once detected, you already have it. The best protection is prevention which, admittedly, would require massive, radical changes in the way we live.

The NBCAM folks got wise--they now say "Early Detection Saves Lives"--if you go to their website, they pretend that this is what they have always said.

So it must be true.


I'm tired of cute images generated by multinational corporations pretending to save the world.

I am tired of AstraZeneca playing us for fools.

This is what a double mastectomy looks like. Laura Ellis is a remarkable woman who has shared her photos so the world can see beyond the "pink fuzzy teddy bears."

She gave me permission to use the photo.

You can read her story here. I don't have permission for the Zeneca photos, but I figure this all falls under education.

Thank you, Laura.


KPd. said...

I went to a workshop this weekend by a group from the Bay Area called Breast Cancer Action. Their response to the pink ribbon logo is their own catchphrase, "cancer sucks!"
Currently, BCA is putting grassroots pressure on Yoplait yogurt to stop putting rBGH in their product while cynically advertising Yoplait's commitment to fighting breast cancer with pink foil lids.

Tracy Rosen said...

Holy crap Michael. You have single-handedly written the most effective piece on breast cancer I have read to date. And in this age of pink ribbons and walks, that list is almost mind-numbing.

But this, this does not numb. It awakens the rage that perhaps is needed.

Well done, and I am so sorry for the losses you (indeed, we all) continue to suffer.

doyle said...


If you want to read some powerful words, go visit Laura's site. She's lived it, and she's tired of the pink nonsense.

(Might look at the kpd suggestions, too--she's a smart cookie. Thankfully her mother is a bit brighter than her father.)

Louise Maine said...

Better living through Chemistry? I think that has been our slogan for some time. Are we too far to go back to a simpler way of living? I certainly am trying but the onslaught is everywhere.

doyle said...


We're never too far to return to something that worked for hundreds of generations, unless you're talking about our mindset.

Take a peek at your Amish neighbors. I am not advocating becoming Amish, but they do show us that simpler ways are possible. Indeed, most humans alive today do live more simply than us, though often not by choice.

They can teach us something. Won't be that long (a few generations if that) when our choices will be limited as well.