Robin has breast cancer.
Her next-door neighbor has breast cancer. The elderly woman down the block from her has breast cancer. The woman who lives in the red house around the corner died from breast cancer.
All of these women were diagnosed in the same week back in 2004. And none of them have any idea why.
In No Family History, a new documentary feature written and directed by University of Pennsylvania research fellow Dr. Sabrina McCormick, Robin -- her last name is not revealed in the movie -- presents her world since contracting the disease. Her entire world. Full of painful chemo and mutilated mammary glands. Her suffering motivates Sabrina to understand why this is happening to so many women in the Long Island area.
"When you have cancer, all these things that you care about are taken away from you," Robin laments before yet another painful visit to the doctor. "Here I had big boobs, blonde hair, skinny. Now my hair is falling out, my boobs are gone and I might blow up."
Robin is from a part of Long Island considered a "cancer cluster;" an area with unusually high rates of breast cancer. Dr. McCormick's research began here, and would eventually lead her to a startling discovery: environmental factors as diverse as pesticides, power plant emissions and even chemicals in make-up and cleaning products may be causing cancer.
And no one is doing anything about it.
"What we need to be seeing is better regulation of toxins in our environment that may be causing cancer," Dr. McCormick says. "People will say that we are not exposed to very many of these compounds so it's OK. And that is how the EPA looks at it. But the scariest thing is the cumulative effects."
This catch-all response causes people in cancer clusters to fend for themselves, struggling to figure out how to respond. Robin eventually decided to move her family to Connecticut to escape what she calls a "scary environment."
It also allows many companies to continue inclusion of these trace chemical elements in their products. Until it is known how much cumulative exposure to these chemicals will harm you, food, pesticide and cosmetic companies will continue to use them. And they will continue to sponsor breast cancer events.
"Many of these chemicals have been regulated by the European Union," Dr. McCormick says. "The United States is not regulating these compounds because we don't regulate our personal care products. They monitor themselves which, many argue, leads to a fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation."
The most common of these dangerous compounds are phthalates and parabens. Phthalates are used in the manufacture of plastics to make them more flexible. These chemicals are also often found in cosmetic products. Parabens are used as preservatives in many products from food to pharmaceuticals.
There are many things women can do to avoid putting this potentially life-threatening disease in their mouth or on their face. Buying organic food can allow you to avoid pesticide chemicals and preservatives like parabens. And checking the ingredients on cosmetic and household products to ensure they don't contain phthalates can help keep these toxins out of your home.
But you have to leave the house some time. And there are still cancer-causing pathogens floating through the air all the time. In suburban neighborhoods like Robin's, the grass is always greener, due in large part to lawn and garden pesticides. A 2006 report from the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project showed a link between lifetime exposure to residential pesticides and an increased risk for breast cancer.
These studies are often seen as inconclusive due to the mixture of chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis. Still, studies of cancer clusters continue to point the finger at lawn and garden care chemicals as the culprit.
On Cape Cod, where nine of 15 towns have breast cancer rates 20 percent or more above the norm for Massachusetts, an ongoing cancer study found that industrial pollutants, residential pesticides and contaminated drinking water led to increased cancer risks. The demographic most at risk? 25-29 year residents.
In examining the environments where these women lived and worked, researchers found mammary carcinogens in home air and dust samples from all 120 homes tested. These chemicals included both phthalates and parabens.
Is there no escape? Are women in cancer clusters doomed to either roll the dice or move away? For people like Robin, all they can do is get involved. Contacting city and state disease control centers for regional disease data is a good start. Women can also contact representatives asking for more research into prevention studies.
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