Tipping Points 2: Winning the Cancer War

Tipping Points 2

April 2, 2010


Winning the Cancer War

In June 2001, my niece and godchild Catherine, at twenty-seven years of age, died.  An aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma took her down in thirteen months.  She left behind her eighteen-month old daughter; a not-yet-thirty-year-old husband; and an extended family and a network of friends who all had tried, as she had, to move heaven and earth to preserve her life. 

Catherine’s death created a black hole in the fabric of the lives of those who loved her.  And, her death was most likely a casualty of the careless, heedless pollution of the land, water, and air on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia where she lived.  There, the commercial chicken industry grows, slaughters, and dumps waste onto the fields and into the Chesapeake Bay.  There, large commercial agriculture grows vegetables for nearby urban markets, using, of course, the full array of agricultural chemicals.   

Catherine’s cancer and death is a metaphor for what is wrong in our society.  It was not until my early forties in the 1980s that I started noticing how many people around me were dying of cancer.  How many Americans, I now wonder, have to experience the kind of horrible death Catherine endured before we wake up, stop calling cancer “normal,” and insist that the poisonous practices causing cancer be stopped? 

But, when will this BIG tipping point arrive?

Catherine’s death produced a fork in the road for me.  I could continue to live life as usual.  Or, I could realize that life is precious and sometimes much shorter than we expect, and I could answer a deep longing to return to a quieter,  rural life lived closer to the earth, to its seasons, to nature.  That’s how I got to Maine. 

And, once in Maine, some time after I passed out at her dinner table from a food reaction, my neighbor recommended I read Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s book, LIVING DOWNSTREAM.  Steingraber is a scientist (biology) and an heir to Rachael Carson, who died of lymphoma.  Steingraber’s life choices have been made from the “watchful waiting” platform of one who had bladder cancer in her twenties.  She studies, and now shares, what she has learned about cancer and the connections between cancer and environmental degradation.

Steingraber demonstrates that we have no comprehensive national cancer registry.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) “does not attempt to record all cases of cancer in the country, but instead samples about 14 percent of the populace” (37).  This sampling comes from five states and five specific metropolitan areas and has only been in place since 1973.  Other factors further complicate this sampling:  different states collect data differently, some are years behind in analysis, and the data cannot account for people who move around the country.  Some states, like Vermont, not in the NCI registry, have only had cancer registries since 1992 (41-42). 

Regardless of this vexed statistical terrain, Steingraber says it is possible to determine that “the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991,” that “40 percent of us…will contract the disease sometime within our lifespans,” and that lymphoma is one of the cancers that has “escalated over the past twenty years” (41-42).  Indeed, the cancer that killed Catherine, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is one of three cancers “ascending most swiftly in the United States,” tripling since 1950 (47, 51).  Lymphomas are “consistently associated” with the phenoxy pesticides and herbicides which are used widely on crops, lawns, gardens, timber stands, and golf courses (52).  And, lymphomas occur in higher rates in agricultural areas (52, 64-65).  

My mother died in July 2009 from the same type of cancer that killed Catherine.  She lived in rural Georgia across the road from a young peach orchard posted with scull-and-crossbones poison signs and still reeking of chemicals many weeks after spraying occurred.  Even walking down the road next to the orchard drenched our clothes with the chemical odor.  Steingraber explains that when a chemical is sprayed, “less than 0.1 percent” stays on the target; the rest, or 99.9 percent, drifts “into the general environment (179).”  So, it is logical that lymphoma cancer rates are growing.

Now, in Georgia, where once there were dozens of peach farms in every little town, only about five companies control the commercial production of peaches—which means the connection between peach growers and those who live with their poisonous practices is broken.  This kind of distance is occurring all across the terrain of food as consumers, too, are distanced from the production of their food, which allows heinous practices to occur, from the spraying of poisonous chemicals, to the torture of animals, to the production of fake foods.      

Steingraber traces the history of the shift from a carbohydrate-based economy to a petrochemical-based economy after World War II when the chemical industry needed a new use for stockpiled war-produced chemicals.   After 1945, “between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals” came into common use and only “1.5 to 3 percent” or “1,200 to 1,500 chemicals” have ever been “tested for carcinogenicity” (99).  These petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals “easily interact” with our bodies and, thus, interfere with our life processes.  Many are soluble in fat and collect in animal tissues high in fat, like human brains, breasts, bone marrows, and livers, all of which are sites where cancer is increasing.  Additionally, many of these synthetic chemicals are often not biodegradable, so they do not decay as does organic matter.  But, they are not static:  many shed, or, “off-gas,” the “smaller, more reactive molecules from which they are made,” producing new chemicals that remain largely uninvestigated, let alone monitored or regulated.  Further, when burned, many of these substances can create new reactive chemicals, like dioxin, which is poisonous (91-100).          

In totality, American industries and we, ourselves, are, every day, putting tons of chemicals into our environment without considering the implications for humans or for the earth itself.  In the early 1990s, in Steingraber’s home state of Illinois alone, “54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides” went onto agricultural fields annually and in 1992, Illinois industries “released more than 100 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment” (5-6).  We are, Steingraber argues, “running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects” (270)—an experiment that has had deadly consequences since the World Health Organization has concluded that “at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences” (60).  Thus, cancer cells, Steingraber argues, are “made, not born” (241).    

So, cancer is NOT caused by having bad genes or not getting enough exercise.  Cancer is being caused by the cocktail we have created, which includes at least the following ingredients:  environmental poisons; fake, highly processed foods; the overuse and mixing of dangerous prescription drugs; and the stress of modern life. 

Cancer is a creature of corporatism, of unregulated industries which are not held accountable for the harm they do.  Cancer is the blowback from a society that puts profit ahead of people and individuals ahead of community.  Cancer itself is an extremely profitable industry.  Cancer is a metaphor we can and must change.

We can start by strengthening ties in our own community.  Begin buying local products from those who follow sustainable practices.     


Turkey Tracks: Our First Flock

Turkey Tracks: April 2, 2010

Our First Flock

We got six chickens in March–a rooster and five hens.  We hadn’t planned on the rooster, but he wanted to come, and we’re so glad he did.  The roo, Napoleon, or Nappy, and three of the hens, are Copper Black Marans.  This breed is rare in America, but very common in Europe.  We lucked into getting them because they are not breeding quality.  This breed lays the most beautiful dark, chocolate brown eggs.  We could care less that Nappy has a white tail feather, or that not all the beautiful black hens have feathered feet.  The other two hens are Ameraucana Wheatens, and they are beautiful.  They are like quicksilver in the yard–quick, light, happy.  And, they lay blue eggs.

Here are our chicks getting used to their new home.

And, here is a picture of our chicken coop, which we purchased at the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers (MOFGA) fair last September from a young couple near Augusta, www.rootscoopsandmore.com.

One of the Ameraucanas, Sally, loves Nappy.

She follows him everywhere and sleeps next to him at night.  The coop roost only holds four birds, and the French babes and the other Ameraucana, Martha, apparantly have dibs on it.

Nappy leads the girls around the yard on walkabouts.  There is much discussion along the way.  They are delighted with the number of worms in my vegetable garden beds!

Tipping Points 1: Passing Out in My Plate

Tipping Points 1

April 1, 2010

Passing Out In My Plate

In May 2006, I passed out at our neighbors’ dinner table from an allergic reaction to something I had eaten.  The attack strengthened so quickly that I never knew until much later, when we could all joke a little, that my face fell into my dinner plate.  Or, that I lost all muscle control.  Or, that my husband and our neighbors were really scared as they tried to tell a dispatcher which rural driveway the responding rescue squads should take.  Or, that our neighbors’ son drew pictures of his yard filled with trucks and emergency crews during the following weeks.   

Afterwards, for some days, I felt very tired and very groggy.  And, scared.  Why had these attacks started?  What exactly had produced this strong reaction?  What if I had more attacks, and like fatal bee stings, the next one killed me? 

Earlier that spring, I had already had four or five mild attacks where blood rushed to my face and hands, where my vision blurred slightly, where I felt ill, and where I knew something was really wrong.  In April, there had been a much stronger attack in a favorite local restaurant, an attack which had allowed me to begin to associate hot chili peppers and/or pork with the reaction, though these were foods I had eaten with impunity all my life.

But that day in May, I had not eaten any peppers.  I had eaten a sandwich at a local fast-food place, and, I remembered later, that I had not felt well and that one of the earlier mild attacks had also been associated with this place.  Since I had eaten sandwiches from this chain all across America, I wondered if I had brushed up against some sort of local, recent pesticide application.  Perhaps, too, the sulfites in the red wine we brought to our neighbor’s dinner—a deep Chilean red–played a role in pushing me over the edge of what had been a simmering attack.  The rest of the dinner were foods I eat all the time:  wild salmon and, from the farmers’ market, salad, a green vegetable, and freshly baked local bread.  At that time, it seemed unlikely that these often-eaten foods had become ingredients in what I had begun to think of as a mysterious cocktail that had the power to knock me out in seconds. 

You can see how all these uncertainties could be unsettling, how looking for the combining culprits is like hunting for a needle in a haystack.  I carried an Epi-pen everywhere and, after reading all the warnings on the label, worried that my husband might actually use it on me if I passed out.  The potential effects of the pen seemed more dangerous than one of the bad attacks, from which I have, so far, slowly recovered on my own.  I stopped drinking red wine—or any alcohol–since alcohol can intensify a reaction.  And I started being really, really aware of my environment and my body’s reactions to everything. 

The food attacks, thus, became a tipping point for me.  They and my reactions to them started me on a journey of discoveries that have led to differing life choices.  A sign at the local Yoga Barn reminds me more forcibly of what is at stake:  “Take Care of Your Body, or Where Will You Live?”   In this sense, this tipping point, has been a gift. 

I am convinced now that my body is like one of those canaries used in mines to warn of odorless, deadly gasses.  Or, I am like the frog floating in warming water.  My body is telling all of us that those like me—and there are many–are signaling some kind of fundamental overload.  For me, the foods I’ve eaten all of my life have suddenly become poisonous and eating has become a bit like gambling with a roulette wheel.  Yet, foods alone may not be the total cause.       

What I’ve learned is that corporations have changed our food radically since the mid 1970s and that too much of our food is causing wild allergic reactions and chronic disease in people.  What I’ve learned is that we humans are, literally, poisoning our environment and, by extension, ourselves.  What I’ve learned is that corporations have been remarkably successful in either creating junk science that facilitates the selling of their products or hiding science that points to problems.  What I’ve learned is that our government has a 150 year history of protecting and facilitating corporations, not its citizens.  What I’ve learned is that few people have the time to do the kind of research I have been doing, and that I want to share this knowledge.   

The good news I can offer is that we do have opportunities for making a different set of choices, for living a different kind of life.  The hope to be found is that once we understand fully the modern terrain upon which we exist—a terrain I did not understand in 2006–we will begin making these different choices.  We can join others around the country who have already become agents of change in a culture that is now unsustainable for too many of us.  The promise is a fuller, richer, healthier life.