The Cancer Prevention Challenge

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Kathy Koch, of the Women’s Healthy Environments Network, displays her ‘Wanna Be Toxic Free” T-shirt

How the Women’s Healthy Environments Network is Taking Action for Prevention

For those of us interested in preventing cancer, the promotion of health must be at the forefront of our intentions and activities.  Health promotion consists of increasing activities that encourage states of well-being and help to actualize the health potential of individuals, families, communities, and society.

The World Health Organization states that “prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer,” and cites a variety of preventable factors which can lead to cancer in our daily lives, like pollution, occupational carcinogens, and radiation.

In 1962, when Rachel Carson’s world-awakening book, Silent Spring, was published, cancer struck one in every four Canadians. These were shocking statistics back then. In what became one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, Carson urged governments to seize the “golden opportunity” to prevent cancer, rather than solely focusing on treatment and research for the cure. But with little attention paid to prevention over the past 40+ years, cancer incidence rates have actually increased. Currently, nearly one in two males in Canada and over one third of females will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Cancer is now the leading cause of death in Canada.

Every April and October – the two ‘cancer months’ on our calendar – we are urged to adopt healthy lifestyle choices, which is indeed very good advice. Not smoking, eating plenty of fresh, whole – preferably organic – foods and getting regular exercise are all essential to good health. So is maintaining a healthy body weight, being moderate with alcoholic beverages, and reducing UV radiation exposures.

“For those in whom cancer is already a hidden or visible presence, efforts to find cures must of course continue. But for those not yet touched by the disease and certainly for the generations as yet unborn, prevention is the imperative need.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

But the carcinogens in our air, water and food – those scores of toxic hitch-hikers we don’t choose – are often an afterthought in Canadian cancer messages, as are the serious hazards in our homes and workplaces. Our Cancer Prevention Challenge exists primarily to draw attention to these unnecessary and preventable risks.

In recent years, Environmental Defence Canada has published many reports about our toxic ‘body burden’, including a report called Toxic Nation, which summarized the results of tests on 11 Canadians from coast to coast, including renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman. Each had blood and urine tested for 88 toxic chemicals, many of them carcinogens. Sixty chemicals showed up in the combined results, including 41 known or suspected cancer-causing substances such as benzene, PVC, formaldehyde and some pesticides. (For the full report, go to

“Chemicals have replaced bacteria and viruses as the main threat to health. The diseases we are beginning to see as the major causes of death in the latter part of (the 1900s) and into the 21st century are diseases of chemical origin.”  – Dr. Dick Irwin, Toxicologist, Texas A&M University

Common Household Sources of Carcinogenic Chemicals

No one deliberately chooses to be exposed to man-made carcinogens (except perhaps for smokers – yet even that’s hardly a choice, since smokers usually become addicted to cigarettes during their teenage years, and later discover that quitting is a major feat – and for some, virtually impossible).

As the Toxic Nation report states, the chemicals that end up in our bodies are a by-product of many industrial processes, released from facilities such as pulp and paper and chemical plants into the surrounding air, water and soil, where they can travel huge distances. Agricultural chemicals and emissions from nuclear facilities also contribute to our toxic load.

Furthermore, “Canadians are also exposed to toxic chemicals everyday through commonly used products in the home such as perfumes, shampoos, air ‘fresheners’, cleaning products, furniture and appliances, frying pans, and food and beverage containers,” according to Toxic Nation.

Particular activities, such as home renovations, are also a source of chemical exposure. Many paints, adhesives and carpets release high levels of volatile organic compounds; demolition can expose asbestos; and stripping old paint can release lead into your household air.

Even our food can contain chemicals that are harmful to human health, either through pesticide sprays on fruits and vegetables, or by simply being grown in and around contaminated soil, air and water.”

When it comes to ‘lifestyle,’ clearly we also need to question all aspects of our Western consumer culture and how they contribute to the epidemic of cancer we’re now experiencing: gas-guzzling cars, many plastics and pesticides made from novel chemicals – even the clothes we wear. Think about this: much of today’s clothing is made from cotton that has been doused with more chemicals than any other agricultural crop; then it’s dyed with heavy metals and aromatic amines, and finished with formaldehyde to keep it ‘perma-pressed’.

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Down-stream – An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment was quoted in the Utne Reader as saying: “Astonishingly, you can read entire tracts about cancer published by the ACS [American Cancer Society] and the word carcinogen never comes up. These seemingly authoritative agencies have framed the cause of the disease as a problem of behavior rather than as one of exposure to disease-causing agents.”

As many are now recognizing, primary prevention of cancer is the best cure.

Why Prevention Plays Second Fiddle to ‘The Cure’

Cancer, as well as being the leading cause of death in Canada, is big business. It’s a very good bet that if a cure for cancer were found tomorrow, or the disease somehow disappeared overnight, our economy would be thrown into deep doldrums. Tens of thousands of jobs – in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research labs, cancer societies, ‘cure’ fundraisers – would be lost, even as ordinary citizens rejoiced.

Here’s just one example: The world’s largest drug company, Pfizer, was facing some serious financial challenges. Its recovery, Forbes magazine reported in 2008, “rested largely on how well [its new CEO] Garry Nicholson, could get cancer-fighting drugs out of its research labs and into doctors’ offices.” Pfizer’s main worry was convincing investors that it could withstand the loss in late 2011 of the company’s U.S. patent on cholesterol-fighting Lipitor, by far the world’s best-selling drug. Will cancer save the day for Pfizer? “The oncology drug market is forecast to grow 50% to $85 billion by 2013 as more effective and expensive drugs are launched,” the Forbes article noted, adding that in 2008 Pfizer sold a mere $2.5 billion worth of cancer drugs, just 5% of its annual sales, while sales of Lipitor alone topped $10 billion in 2009. Will these drugs cure cancer? No, their prime intent is to prolong the lives of people living with cancer – a laudable goal, but one that also fails to reduce the incidence of cancer, now at epidemic rates.

The Elusive ‘Cure’

In 1962, when Rachel Carson’s extraordinary book, Silent Spring, alerted the world to a cancer epidemic then unfolding, one in every four North Americans were diagnosed with cancer, and one in five died from the disease. In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, promising ‘the cure’ in 10 years. Four decades later, we are not significantly closer to the cure for most cancers, although some welcome breakthroughs have been made.

Four decades into the War on Cancer, conquest is not on the horizon. A somber statement on the National Cancer Institute website says, “the biology of the more than 100 types of cancers has proven far more complex than imagined at that time.”  (Newsweek, September 6, 2008. “We Fought Cancer…And Cancer Won.”)

That brings us to fundraising. Most of the multi-million dollar ‘cure’ fundraisers in Canada organize and promote elaborate events in various parts of Canada, all with very high overheads – and all promising participants and their sponsors the elusive cure. How many repeats of The Weekend to End Breast Cancer will it take to truly end breast cancer?

Primary Prevention is the Best ‘Cure’

As many experts are now acknowledging, the best strategy for ending the cancer epidemic is primary prevention – stopping cancer before it starts. Well over half of all cancers are ‘environmental’ – that is, they’re not caused by damaged genes we inherit, but from toxic exposures we experience during our lifetime, and even (as the relatively new science of epigenetics is showing), from exposures experienced by our parents and grandparents.

Perhaps most astonishing of all,” writes Sandra Steingraber, is that “epigenetic changes can be inherited. This means that the environmental exposures we experienced as children can have consequences not just for us but also for our descendants.”  (Sandra Steingraber, “Ecological Inheritance”, Nov/Dec 2009 issue, Orion magazine)

To prevent cancer, we’re urged by cancer agencies to stop smoking – better still, never start – to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, limit alcohol consumption, and exercise regularly. This is good advice, but it does not address the larger issue of the widespread toxicity of the environments we live and work in, the result of decades of lax government regulation and failure to screen out thousands of novel chemicals which have later proven to be linked with many health problems, including cancer.

So, in addition to those healthy personal choices, we must also pressure governments, industry and agriculture to eliminate cancer-causing substances from our air, water and soil – and get them out of thousands of consumer and personal products now on the market. Most of our homes, schools and workplaces are also contaminated with cancer-causing substances that can be reduced or completely eliminated.

Of the half-billion dollars spent in Canada on cancer research each year, less than 2% is devoted to finding the causes – and preventing – cancer. Meanwhile, cancer incidence rates continue to climb. While cancer is often touted as a disease of the elderly, in 2009 best estimates predicted that 30% of new cancer cases and 18% of cancer deaths would occur in young and middle-aged adults ages 20-59. As for older Canadians, yes, the percentage share rises: 43% of new cancer cases and 60% of cancer deaths will occur among those who are at least 70 years old. But whatever happened to dying of old age?

Primary prevention could make a huge difference to our cancer rates, but it’s not as compelling as chasing a cure. And, alas, in a society dominated by corporations, there’s no profit in it either.


* Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic. (2007) Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey, Anne Wordsworth. (New Society Publishers)

* The Secret History of the War on Cancer (2007) Devra Davis (Basic Books, The Perseus Books Group)

* Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. (2001). Sandra Steingraber, Perseus Publishing: Cambridge, MA.

* How to Get Your Lawn and Garden Off Drugs: A Basic Guide To Pesticide Free Gardening in North America. (2003). Carole Rubin, Harbour Publishing.

* Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer. (2000). Janette Sherman, Taylor & Francis: NY.

* Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. (1997). Sandra Steingraber. Addison-Wesley: NY.

* Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. (Reprint Edition 1997). Theo Colborn et al. Plume Publishing: NY.

To see the complete list of Resources, check out the extended version of this article posted at

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