On a backroad in the Salinas Valley

The Clinic is an ongoing collaboration between the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF, Mission Loc@l and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Prescriptions is a blog about health written by scientists at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF.

I took this photo in early autumn on a back road in the Salinas Valley. To me, the juxtaposition of the pink tree ribbons alongside pesticide-laden agricultural fields, with a relatively new housing development in the background, is sadly ironic. Two months after the annual October breast cancer awareness drive, I am still thinking about the recent trend to dismiss the pink ribbons of breast cancer awareness. One argument is that all the chipper cheerleading to find a cure and boost survivors’ spirits is somehow shallow and insubstantial. Abigail Zuger, M.D., recently reviewed two books with contrasting perspectives on pink ribbons and more in the New York Times.

As I see it, there isn’t anything trivial about showing support for a disease that one in eight women will get, and which we are now seeing in men.

All the pretty pink bling is really the only way people know to acknowledge the devastation of breast cancer and feel like they are doing something, anything, to beat that wretched disease. It isn’t the average person’s fault that our public policy and prevailing medical model look for cures after the fact rather than promoting prevention at the time of conception and during childhood and the adolescent years. How can the ordinary Josephine possibly know that more than 200 chemicals are associated with breast cancer in lab animals, and that many of those chemicals are pervasive in their lives as well as the lives of their children and grandchildren?

Just where do these chemicals come from? And how can we avoid or minimize exposure to them? What lifestyle choices that we have control over will mitigate the harmful effects of chemicals that may cause detrimental health outcomes, including breast cancer?  Additionally, how is industry free to place these chemicals, the majority untested for human safety, in everyday consumer products? Finally, what substantial change is needed to ensure that breast cancer and many other serious diseases become less common? These are the questions that I found most useful to ask, instead of the “Why me?” and “What did I do wrong?” questions that I initially pondered after my breast cancer diagnosis at age 45.

There is mounting evidence that the early environmental milieu we grow up in, beginning with the womb and extending to other critical times of development, will influence our eventual health and wellbeing. For example, a recently published article by Dr. Barbara Cohn reviews the pesticide DDT as a case study in the developmental and environmental origins of breast cancer.

Over the past six years, the California Breast Cancer Research Program has devoted 30 percent of its research funds to study the effects of the environment on the development of breast cancer, and why some groups of women are more likely to get breast cancer or to die from the disease. The goal of this multimillion dollar effort is to fund research that not only increases knowledge about these questions, but also points to solutions that will reduce the suffering from breast cancer and move us closer to eliminating the disease. Over the next four years, PRHE will be helping the California Breast Cancer Research Program fashion a research agenda that will further our knowledge of the links between the environment and breast cancer. More information about this research, including a comprehensive review of what we know now, can be found here.

These chemicals are everywhere, and as overwhelming as that may seem, there are actions that all of us, especially those of reproductive age and those responsible for the welfare of babies and children, can do to reduce the risk of future disease occurrence while we await the findings of research. It will require substantial and committed change in our behaviors, consumer choices and ultimately public policy. “Toxic Matters,” a publication of PRHE’s project From Advancing Science to Ensuring Prevention Alliance, offers an array of suggestions to get started making small steps in our homes, workplaces, schools and communities with our food, water and personal or household products.

Show your support for local businesses that promote these healthier options. Educate them if they don’t yet. And even, if you like, support breast cancer prevention with pink bling that has been “greened.” Continue to join the experts at the PRHE as they discuss the environment and your health. Next week, Dr. Naomi Stotland will write about easy steps to prevent exposure to worrisome chemicals in household cleaning products.

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Post Doctoral Fellow at UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment

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1 Comment

  1. My two sisters and I lived next to cherry, plum and apple orchards when we were between 5 and 9 years old. We used to run outside to watch the crop dusters spray the trees – what fun! As adults, while no breast cancer so far, we all have serious and multiple auto-immune diseases. Our parents have been exceptionally healthy. We have always wondered about the connection of our young lives and the toxins used in agribusiness.

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