Cancer: When the Personal is National
There are two pictures from my childhood that I think of often, the classic kind that live for years on family refrigerators and mantels. One shows a little boy and I, very young and impossibly blond, too concentrated on our game to notice the snap of an aunt's camera from across the room. Then one with the same boy, the two of us side by side, toddlers dwarfed by an enormous armchair, baby-faced and grinning. We share the mischievous glee of young friendship, two baby trouble-makers who spent every Rosh Hashanah stealing fistfuls of chocolates from his grandparents candy dishes, running through the backyard until our holiday clothes were muddied.
He died in the fall of 2008 after a two year struggle with cancer. He was twenty one years old. And those snapshots of childhood mischief were replaced for me by one image: The pain and love, equally deep, etched across his mother’s face at the shivah house.
We are in the midst of a national tragedy. In the past 30 years, childhood cancer rates have continuously increased. The President’s Cancer Panel recently “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,”a 200 page long report that delves into the impact of the environment on our health. For so long, we’ve been taught that the only way to prevent cancer is through diet, exercise, or removing a myriad of unhealthy behaviors from our lives. But the report reveals another major contributor to this epidemic: toxic chemicals.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals. Since then, the EPA has required testing of less than 1 percent of the chemicals in commerce. Our broken system leaves us exposed to countless toxic chemicals every day, and this constant exposure is wildly increasing our cancer risk. 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, while 21 percent of Americans will die from it. The report emphasizes that widely quoted estimates of cancer deaths from environmental factors are completely outdated because they don't recognize how different environmental factors interact with each other, or how exposure can be more damaging when it occurs during certain age windows, such as infancy and puberty.
The suggestions put forward by the Cancer Panel are the same recommendations that advocates have made for years. Eat organic. Use glass containers instead of plastic when using your microwave. Filter drinking water. And pregnant women; overhaul everything you eat, touch, and encounter throughout your pregnancy. With a whopping 300 contaminants detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, our environment has caused babies to now be born pre-polluted.
We can’t just fix our lifestyles; we must fix our system. Again and again, the report shows the weakness of our current chemicals legislation, noting that “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.” Stories like Molly Gray’s, a new mom who monitored her diet and products only to find her blood still carried high levels of toxins during her pregnancy, show us that no matter how much we change our diet or purchasing patterns, we are still at a constant risk for chemical exposures.
We have a once in a generation chance to change the toxic chemical law. The Safe Chemicals Act is a chance to reclaim Environmental Health as a human right and greatly reduce the personal, and national, tragedy that is cancer. Lets stand up and say this is for my family, for my children, for the world they will inherit, for the lives they will lead. And lets do everything we can to make the look of raw pain on a mother’s face, and the loss of a life that has barely begun, the rarity it should be.