Did something in the environment cause my cancer? This is a question I heard asked repeatedly by young adult cancer patients across the country while researching my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.
I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twenty-seven and often wondered if growing up amid Pittsburgh’s steel town relics may have contributed to my own cancer. I leapt at the chance to interview Richard Acker, a 36-year-old metastatic colon cancer patient and environmental attorney. Here is a part of our interview, excerpted from my book:
In an industrialized society like ours, we are putting huge amounts of chemicals into the environment and into our bodies. We do not know the long-term effects, especially synergistically. More and more studies are showing one to two hundred synthetic chemicals in the average person’s bloodstream. Did you know the average person has fire retardant in their bloodstream because of all the cushions we sit on and the clothes we wear? The FDA, the EPA, no one has ever studied the effects of these many chemicals together. Each chemical is thought to individually pose a minimum risk, but what if you have 150 things that are each individually minimal risks, but perhaps three or four of them together might cause a greater risk than we have ever learned about? … Could they be causing cancer? Maybe, I don’t know. There is that chance.
Part of the reason they don’t do the research on cancer and chemicals is because the chemical companies don’t really want them to. And the federal government is not particularly enthused either about researching things that could cause economic impact if they were withdrawn or restricted. But also it is partly just the difficulty. You do the math. If you have one to two hundred chemicals, in order to research the potential effects of the combination of each of those, if you take a pair of every three or four of those chemicals, there would be hundreds of thousands of potential experiments. It would be totally cost prohibitive. And to do it on a large-enough scale where you could get statistically significant results, how could you do that? It would be extremely difficult, so I don’t totally blame industry or the government for not doing it. But the truth is, the consequence of the expense and the reticence of not doing this testing is that the whole American population is in a sense guinea pigs for the effects of dozens of synthetic chemicals being put into the human body. That is just reality.
Whether you are a cancer survivor or not, the question is what do you do with the reality Richard described? Some people do nothing and let fear fester. Others overreact with what I call enviroparanoia, binging on unproven cleansing diets and regimens. I try to find balance by taking reasonable steps to limit society’s and my own personal carcinogenic burden.
1. Cosmetics and body products are loaded with known carcinogens. Do your own consumer research on Skin Deep and shop wisely.
2. Dry cleaning chemicals are extremely toxic. Hand wash more, dry clean less.
3. Car exhaust spews carcinogens. Drive less, take public transit more, and limit the amount of time you spend in close proximity to highways.
4. Power plants throw off tons of carcinogens into the air. Conserve and limit your personal use of energy, and advocate for higher energy efficiency standards and cleaner energy by getting involved with national organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council.
5. Knowledge is power. Align yourself with cancer organizations that are advocating for government funding for research into the connections between cancer and the environment, like Breast Cancer Action.
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