I clearly remember that it was September 22, 2011, when I received the call: I had breast cancer. I had flunked my mammogram, but assumed it was a mistake. During my follow up appointment, I was distracted until I noticed that the technician seemed agitated and overly polite. A radiologist did an ultrasound and a biopsy on the spot. A week later, I got the game-changing telephone call. I was 45.
The mammogram had likely saved my life. My tumor was small, but aggressive. It had already created a clone. The doctor gave me a choice: lumpectomy or mastectomy, and I had exactly 13 days to make my choice before the scheduled surgery.
I had a lumpectomy on October 5. Before the surgery, I had had barely enough time to school myself on breast cancer, let alone the pros and cons of each surgical choice. During my recovery, I had some time to ponder.
Breast cancer did not run in my family. I had never known enough about it to even include it on the laundry list of fears that kept me awake, particularly after having children. Suddenly, I was finding out about it, fast.
Only 5 to 10% of breast cancer is considered hereditary. No one knows what causes one person to get cancer and not others, but researchers are starting to understand risk factors better. I started to learn that toxic chemicals are everywhere in our consumer products, and they are mostly not regulated by government.
That October, I recovered from surgery and learned about environmental factors and cancer. At the same time, October being breast cancer awareness month, pink ribbons bloomed everywhere around me, on cosmetics, yoghurt, and canned goods, among other things.
But wait, BPA in the plastic liner of canned goods is suspected to cause cancer, I had learned. And many cosmetics contain carcinogenic ingredients, I also learned. What?
Turns out that slapping a pink ribbon on a product does not guarantee that that product is not cancer causing. In fact, the range of products that have touted a pink ribbon – guns and fast food among them – do not have a universal claim to health.
As I approached the start of chemotherapy (and the well-meaning volunteers at the American Cancer Society’s “Look good; Feel Better,” offered me free cosmetics full of endocrine disruptors), my children asked if it meant that we would now be joining all the pink ribbon events.
Actually, no, I said. Pink ribbons were – and are – everywhere in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But when 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with the disease, how much more awareness do we need?
I decided it was time to move beyond awareness, beyond pink ribbons, to working to stop the disease before it starts. I learned that in just a generation there has been a 40-percent increase in breast cancer, and we know that environmental factors like toxic chemical exposures have played a major role. Eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals is a crucial and too often ignored step toward prevention.
Who knows if I am reducing my risk for a cancer reoccurrence by reducing the number of personal care products I use and by running products through the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database so that I can identify dangerous chemicals before I decide whether to purchase. What I do know is that I am being as proactive as I can be to protect myself and my children, taking on a job that I wish were done for me, by companies that produce and sell consumer goods, by government regulators.
That’s why I also support the Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action – two San Francisco-based groups that demand we move beyond the pink and call for chemical reform laws and more attention for prevention.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I have counseled three more women my age I know who were also diagnosed with breast cancer. Finding a cure is great, but how can we prevent it from happening in the first place?