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The Cancer Epidemic

  cancer epidemic
Guy Dauncey: "There's a huge other story that's not being told here."
By Guy Dauncey
A friend of ours died last week, here in Victoria. She was in her early 50s, and as lovely as they come. She was always contributing to the community in one way or another, helping the local horticultural society, always with a big smile.

She died after five years of battle, involving three major surgeries and three rounds of chemotherapy. She was very positive and heroic about it; her husband too. They understood the role of attitude, humour, stress, prayer, diet, and other things they hoped would make a difference. She died peacefully, her husband beside her. As deaths go, hers was a good one.

But why did she have to die? Every day, the obituary columns tell of men and women in their forties and fifties who are dying long before their time, their hopes, careers and contributions unfinished, their children, partners, parents and friends left to grieve. So what are they dying of that makes me angry and upset, instead of calm and peaceful?

Cancer. A huge epidemic of it. When I give talks and workshops these days, I often ask people to raise their hands if they have a friend or family member who has cancer. Almost every hand goes up. It’s really astonishing.

We are used to hearing about the ecological disasters that are befalling the world’s forests, oceans, and wildlife. We know, at some level, that it is the fault of human and corporate greed, riding rough-shod over ecosystems with a “humans-rule-nature” attitude.

We don’t often think of cancer as an ecological disaster. We are told that it is a “lifestyle” disease. If we follow the “Seven Steps to Health,” the Canadian Cancer Society tells us, we will reduce our risk of getting it: Don't smoke - Eat healthy food - Be active - Be sensible in the sun - Follow cancer screening guidelines - Report changes in your health - Use caution with hazardous materials.

It’s all very good advice - with the exception that mammograms as a preventive measure against breast cancer have been shown to have no value under the age of 50. But it is also deeply troubling. With the exception of a small nod in the direction of hazardous materials, it tells us that it’s our fault if we get cancer. We smoked; we didn’t eat enough green leafy veggies; we tanned too much; we watched TV when we should have been jogging. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

And yet all over North America, people are getting cancer who did none of these things. So are fish and animals, who don’t smoke or eat junk food. The Beluga whales in the St Lawrence Seaway are getting cancers, while their cousins in the open Atlantic are not.

There’s a huge other story that’s not being told here. Dr. Sam Epstein, professor of Occupational & Environmental Medicine at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago, is an internationally recognized authority on the toxic and carcinogenic effects of environmental pollutants in the air, the water and the workplace.

His work shows that since the 1950s, in North America, there has been a 55% increase in cancer, when the statistics are standardized for the fact that people are living longer. Childhood cancer of the brain and nervous system - 40% increase since 1975; male colon cancer - 60% increase; breast cancer - 60% increase; brain cancer in adults - 80% increase; prostate cancer - 100% increase; testicular cancer - 100% increase; estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer -135% increase; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma - 200% increase; testicular cancer among men aged 28-35 - 300% increase. In 1950, 1 in 20 women had breast cancer. Now it’s 1 in 8.

What is happening?

There are two levels we need to address - the ecological level, inside our bodies, where toxic influences are causing the cancers, and the human level, where political and commercial influences are covering up the causes.

In the world of cancer, it is very hard to establish proof. That needs a control group of humans who have not been exposed to any toxins, which is impossible to find. We can do it with rats, but not with humans. What we can do, however, is gather the weight of evidence, and come to a sensible, precautionary conclusion.

On the ecological level, here’s some of the evidence:
In North America, homes that use chemical pesticides have a six-fold greater chance of children getting lymphoma. If you create a map of the geographical hotspots in the USA for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the map follows the Great Plains agricultural areas, which have the highest level of pesticide use. Farmers have a higher rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, along with pesticide applicators, golf course supervisors, and Vietnam war veterans (Agent Orange). Dogs whose owners use weed killers in their back yards are twice as likely to get the canine version of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, has clear links to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

If you follow a similar map for breast cancer, most of the hotspots follow the most highly industrialized areas, from Maine to Washington DC, around the Great Lakes borders, and down the lower Mississippi. These same areas have the hotspots for bladder and colon cancer. The San Francisco Bay area is another hotspot, for a variety of toxic reasons. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 2/3 of the US population live in areas where toxic chemicals pose an elevated cancer risk, including benzene, mercury, and formaldehyde. Since World War 2, more than 80,000 chemicals have been created and released into the environment, mostly unregulated.

In Sydney, Nova Scotia, breast cancer among women is 57% higher than for the rest of Nova Scotia. Cervical cancer is 134% higher, stomach cancer 78% higher, brain cancer 72% higher, lung cancer 40% higher. Among men, stomach cancer is 78% higher; colon and rectal cancer 77% higher, brain cancer 68% higher. The authorities say that people in Sydney smoke and drink too much. The reality is that Sydney sits on Canada’s worst industrial contaminated site, from the old coal and steel works, which leach into the local estuary that flows into the harbour, known as the tar ponds.

And it’s not just chemicals. We know that radiation causes cancer, both from nuclear power plants and from the personal X-rays dosages that we accumulate over our lifetime. We know that urban air pollution causes cancer. It is becoming clear that electromagnetic radiation, while it may not cause cancer, does accelerate the growth of a cancer.

Evidence is now coming in about the cancer risk associated with cell-phone towers, and cell-phones. Research in 2001 by a German team at the University of Essen found that people who use a cell-phone regularly are three times more likely to develop uveal melanoma - cancer of the eye. In Britain, the government has issued a warning that cell-phones should never be used by children.

You might be saying, “Enough, already!” I can assure you, there’s a whole lot more where this comes from. For a book that combines wisdom, insight, poetry and the full scientific picture, I cannot recommend Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream strongly enough. Her second book, Having Faith, about her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Faith, is equally profound and moving. There is an epidemic happening, and we owe it to ourselves, and to friends and relatives who have cancer, to understand it properly, and to start to act.

So what is happening on the human level, that we are not hearing about these environmental influences, and that nothing is happening to ban the relevant chemicals?

One of the problems is that Canada’s regulatory agencies take a very passive approach. Canada’s Environmental Auditor General, Brian Emmett, has produced a report which says that when it comes to the regulation of pesticides and other toxic substances, compared to the other OECD countries, Canada’s regulatory system is on a par with Bulgaria.

In addition, the main organizations which are committed to eradicate cancer also take a very passive line when it comes to prevention (and by prevention I do not mean screening or early detection). Canada’s National Cancer Institute, for instance, gives very few grants for studies of the environmental or occupational factors involved in cancer.

The only conclusion I can come to is that there is industry collusion. For many years, the chief sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which occurs every October, was AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of tamoxifen, the controversial carcinogenic drug that is used to reduce the risk of women contracting breast cancer. The main focus of the month has usually been on lifestyle changes and early detection - with scarcely a word on the toxic causes of cancer. When AstraZeneca started sponsoring Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it was a subsidiary of ICI, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers.

As a result of the “mind confusion” that underlies most of cancers major fund-raising efforts, huge numbers of people think that running for the cure and wearing a pink ribbon will solve the problem. The pink ribbons are pink figleafs, which stop us seeing what’s really causing cancer.

And then there’s General Electric, a major industrial polluter which also manufactures mammography machines. If you were on their board of directors, what interest would you have in eliminating the causes of cancer?

Preventative measures

If we are going to stop this epidemic, it seems we are going to have to sidestep the cancer establishment. We have to phase out all known carcinogens. We have to embrace the precautionary principle, as the German and Swedish governments are doing, and ban all new suspected carcinogens.

We have to set up city-wide task forces to seek ways to eliminate known carcinogens, as Toronto has done. We have to clean up contaminated sites.

We have to impose heavy fines on the release of toxic chemicals into the air and water.

We have to ban chemicals such as formaldehyde (plywood, cabinets) perchloro-ethylene (dry cleaning) and PVC (plastics).

We have to require that plastics manufacturers list their ingredients clearly, so that we can avoid chemicals which off-gas.

We have never to put plastic dishes, baby bottles or clingfilm into a microwave - since it causes carcinogenic chemicals to migrate into the food.

And we have to do as Ontario is now doing in its Breast Awareness Month, which is to examine the toxic roots of cancer, and consider what prevention really means.

It’s a long list, but it’s manageable. But most of all, we have to wake up, and start organizing. Cancer is preventable, but for all the massive fund-raising efforts that have taken place, we have hardly started. Until we do, our friends, relatives, children and grandchildren will continue to get cancer; and they will continue to die.

Guy Dauncey is an author, speaker and sustainable communities consultant who lives in Victoria. His website is


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