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A personal response to the President's Cancer Panel Report

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Special to Enviroblog by Heidi Hutner, Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at SUNY Stony Brook.

The 2009 President's Cancer Panel report, "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now," confirms what Rachel Carson articulated in Silent Spring and what Sandra Steingraber argued in her book, Living Downstream.

Toxic chemicals in our bodies, in random combinations based on exposures starting before we're born, are "linked to genetic, immune and endocrine dysfunction that can lead to cancer and other diseases."

Translation: many toxics cause cancer. The authors of the latest President's Cancel Panel Annual Report cannot say this outright because of the way scientific studies work and because our country has not invested nearly enough money in studying the relationship of toxics to human health (cancer specifically). We don't yet have complete enough national databases and precise enough methods of measurement to draw definitive conclusions.

But the authors of the President's Cancer Panel report certainly come up with a clear case, and they offer many examples of how and where we exposed to dangerous toxics and what needs to be changed. We do know enough, they suggest, we've studied enough, to be able to say that the evidence all points to the fact that our bodies are full of toxic junk that can cause cancer and, often, premature death.

Women's bodies tend to have larger amounts of these toxins, and they are passed to their unborn children through the placenta and later through breast milk. Children are born with their bodies already full of toxics. Their umbilical cord blood tells us this. Their little bodies are at special risk because of their smaller body mass and rapid physical growth, both of which make them more vulnerable to carcinogens.

I have waited for this official report for years.

There is a whole lot of cancer in my family on both sides. None of it seems to make sense. In 1994, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. I was 35. My mother was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was 32, and my father died from melanoma when I was 28. My paternal first cousin, who never smoked, died from lung cancer at 45. Two of my maternal first cousins have had early stage melanomas. My mother's younger sister died from breast cancer.

Recently, I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. The latter is a minor cancer, but it is cancer nonetheless, and with my father's fatal melanoma history, I don't go outside much in the daylight anymore. These cancers seem unrelated and random, and thus potentially a result of environmental rather than genetic history: melanoma is on opposite sides of my family (father and maternal cousins), and lung cancer is on opposite sides of my family as well (paternal cousin, maternal aunt)--so there does not appear to be a genetic connection there, and in my own immediate nuclear family--my mother, father, and I had three different types of cancer.

To top it all off, I am at high risk for secondary cancers because I have had more than 11 CAT scans as part of my Hodgkin's treatment and follow-up. The President's Cancer Panel report tells us:

"People who receive multiple scans or other tests that require radiation may accumulate doses equal to or exceeding that of Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. It is believed that a single large dose of ionizing radiation and numerous low doses equal to the single large dose have much the same effect on the body over time."

Let me repeat, I have had 11 of these tests. Did the benefits of that many tests outweigh the dangers posed? Was I informed about the dangers of such tests at the time they were given to me? Would I have had so many CAT scans had I known what I know now?

No, no and no.

Unfortunately, I'm not the only one -- that's for sure. Forty-one percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Twenty-one percent will die from it. My neighbor across the street -- a 40-something father of two -- is dying of lung cancer. I used to hear him playing basketball with his 12-year-old daughter. He has tried every cancer treatment available, including experimental protocols, but the prognosis is grim. I don't hear the sounds of basketball anymore.

Two women in my immediate neighborhood have had their breasts removed. Several other immediate neighbors have passed away from breast and other cancers. These people are all in their mid-40s and younger. The story of my neighborhood is the story of every neighborhood, and cancer doesn't just strike adults. I know several children who have had it. Some survived, some did not. Today, this is everyone's story.

So the report is out. It comes from on high. We can fight the invasion of the body-snatcher toxins and radiation as individuals to some degree -- if we have the knowledge and economic means -- by eating organic food, using nontoxic cosmetics and cleaning products, avoiding unnecessary X-rays and CAT scans and working in relatively safe environments. Still, private and individual acts of prevention are not enough.

The authors of the President's Cancer Panel report argue that our nation needs a comprehensive strategy for eliminating cancer-causing environmental exposures. Poison often knows no borders -- it can travel and bio-accumulate -- wreaking havoc on the health of all species. Cancer strikes people of all genders, classes, ethnicities, and races. The poor, people working and living in environments with toxic and hazardous materials, and women and children are the hardest it, but we are all vulnerable to carcinogenic pollution.

Will our government (and all governments) make the radical changes called for in this study? Senator Frank Lautenberg's proposed Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 is an important first step.

As Americans, we need to ensure this act passes, and many more like it. It is time for us to follow the wise precautionary principle that has been adopted by the European Union.

As citizens, we must mobilize to ensure that our government enacts preventative measures to protect the health of our children and all living beings.

Will we do so? We must.

Ms. Hutner teaches and writes about ecofeminism, environmentalism, women writers and film. She is a mother and a cancer survivor who blogs here.

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