Women and the Environment: On Breast Cancer

Guest post by Madeline Boyd, WMEAC Women and Environment Intern

Breast cancer is easily the most widely publicized cancer in America. The awareness campaign, spearheaded by the Susan G. Komen for a Cure Foundation and its symbolic pink ribbon, has brought breast cancer to the forefront of discussion surrounding women’s health. There are many factors associated with breast cancer risk, including age, sex, and family history. Since the early 1990s and the discovery of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, genetic predisposition to breast cancer has also been widely publicized. Many women, with or without family history of the disease, are now considering genetic testing as a preventative measure. The focus on genetics as a risk factor for breast cancer is problematic because genetic predisposition is rare amongst the general population – less than one in 10 women with breast cancer have a genetic history of the disease. According to a recent study from the National Institutes of Health, “Current biological mechanisms of cancer suggest that all cancers are originated from both environment and genetics,” yet exposure to environmental carcinogens is not widely considered a risk factors for breast cancer.

In her book Living Downstream, ecologist and environmental activist Sandra Steingraber, a cancer survivor herself, describes how increased incidences of cancer are highly correlated with exposure to the numerous common synthetic chemicals. Steingraber also details the part environment played in her own development of cancer:

I had bladder cancer as a young adult. If I tell people this fact, they usually shake their heads. If I go on to mention that cancer runs in my family, they usually start to nod. But if I am up for blank stares, I will add that I am adopted and go on to describe a study of cancer among adoptees that found correlations within their adoptive families but not within their biological ones. At this point, most people become very quiet. These silences remind me how unfamiliar many of us are with the notion that our genes work in communion with substances streaming in from the larger, ecological world. What runs in families does not necessarily run in blood. And our genes are less an inherited set of teacups enclosed in a cellular china cabinet than they are plates used in busy diners. Cracks, chips, and scrapes accumulate. Accidents happen.

Accidents do happen, more often than realized. Throughout Living Downstream, Steingraber describes numerous synthetic, carcinogenic chemicals that are used in the manufacture and production of daily-used products. She specifically notes the accidental discovery of plasticizers and surfactants, which are used in the production of plastics, paints, herbicides, and detergents, as capable of mimicking estrogen, therefore causing breast cancer. Does a day go by when anyone avoids contact with plastics, paints, herbicides, or detergents?

So why is there not a larger discussion of environmental factors and their link to cancer? In the case of breast cancer, many activists contribute America’s distraction to pinkwashing, defined as “the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be involved in increased rates of the disease.” What many consumers do not realize is that the image of the pink breast cancer ribbon is not regulated by the government and neither is the color pink associated with breast cancer awareness. Therefore, companies can use the pink ribbon and color to market their products under the guise of breast cancer awareness without having to donate any money to breast cancer research or survivors. Many of these companies also use carcinogenic chemicals, which have been linked to the development of breast cancer, in their products. Corporate conglomerates that use the pink ribbon to market their products have a vested interest in consumers not knowing the effect of these chemicals; therefore, little research has been funded in regards to the chemicals’ cancerous effect.

The focus on genetic predisposition coupled with the pervasiveness of the pink ribbon results in distraction from the real issues of preventing, treating, and curing breast cancer. A larger investigation must be taken into the environmental risk factors of breast cancer in order to better prevent the horrible disease. Previous prevention campaigns have marginalized women of color and resulted in African American women being less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, yet 20 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women. Breast cancer awareness campaigns and fundraising need to focus on inclusion, as well as calling out companies using cause marketing to sell harmful products.

How can you get involved? The organization Think Before You Pink has designed several campaigns to raise awareness of pinkwashing and environmental factors linked to breast cancer. Their website is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the issue of pinkwashing and what they can do to help. Click here to sign their petition to end pinkwashing and demand further testing of chemicals before they enter the marketplace. Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream is a must-read for anyone interested in environmental contaminants and cancer. Steingraber will be the keynote speaker for the Third Annual Women and Environment Symposium on February 7, 2014 at the Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

Check back next week for a discussion on conscious consumerism and greenwashing.

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