When something big and unexpected happens to you, when you get your socks knocked off and aren’t sure you’ll be able to find them any time soon, when you find yourself overwhelmed in a way you’ve never experienced before, what do you do? Sit still or pace around in circles? Get very quiet or talk to everyone? Pull the covers over your head or develop a game plan? Decide you have enough information or research, research, research? In 1993 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 48, I did all of the above.
Ten years later, after making many changes in my life and saying “yes” to several paths I would never have entertained during my prior-to-breast-cancer life, I was diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer. It was 2003 and I was 58. I was aware I was at risk for developing metastatic breast cancer, but it never entered my mind that my body might develop two unrelated breast cancer tumors. The nerve of it! I mean, after all!
This time around I made decisions more quickly and surely, and I became more convinced than ever that the causes of my two breast cancer tumors were related to my past. I now know I had been inadvertently exposed to carcinogens as a child. I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Niagara Falls, New York, home to inexpensive hydroelectric power and many chemical manufacturing plants. It was a time when the effects of chemical pollutants on our bodies were not well understood. I remember taking in the chemical smells and looking at the gray clouds of pollutants hanging over the city and telling myself they were my “bread and butter.” Hard to fathom now, but I actually viewed the pollutants positively. Well, now is very different from then, when I had completely bought into the popular marketing line, “Better living through chemistry.” The only downside I remember is our frequently wiping the accumulated layers of soot from our lawn furniture every summer.
The statistics tell us that 1 woman in 8 will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Last month I was in Niagara Falls attending my 50th high school reunion. One evening as I sat around a table with six of my female classmates, the subject turned to breast cancer. We discovered that four of us have had breast cancer. I know this sample is small, but I believe our tally at the table that evening might well be telling us something.
In the fall of 1997 the Breast Cancer Fund entered my life. I began to learn about the effect of under-studied and unregulated chemicals on our bodies and our lives. Now I know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives lurk in the products we use every day. I know that even very low doses of bisphenol A (BPA) found in the lining of food cans can cause harm to babies and young children. I know that the beauty industry, whose products we slather all over our skin, manufactures products containing substances toxic to humans. I know that biomonitoring (measuring the levels of chemical pollutants in people’s bodies) and health-tracking programs (examining regional disease rates) are critical to larger efforts to reduce chemical exposures linked to disease.
And so I became a fundraiser and strong voice for the Breast Cancer Fund. To spread the word, I ask my community, year after year, to contribute to my hiking effort in the Breast Cancer Fund’s Peak Hike for Prevention. My loyal following of 50 appreciates both learning from me and making a financial contribution to this important work.
I also choose my personal care and household cleaning products carefully, bypassing the advertising and going straight to an examination of their contents. I buy locally grown, pesticide-free produce as much as possible, minimize my use of canned foods, choose wild fish over farmed, and free range chickens over those confined to crowded quarters in too-small cages. I try to “live lightly” on this earth, respecting its land, water, air and living things. And I model my behaviors and choices for my children and grandchildren – my most precious legacy. I see myself as one of the many human faces of people living with the effects of diseases linked to chemical exposure. Do you see yourself this way too?
NOTE: This is a guest post from two-time breast cancer survivor, mother of two and grandmother of six Liz Jones who lives in San Jose, California.
Photo of Liz Jones speaking courtesy of the Breast Cancer Fund.