There is No Cure for Cancer

by Alle C. Hall
Excerpted with permission from the original article written by Alle C. Hall, published by The Stranger in May 1996.

On Oct. 15, 1995, over 5,000 women joined forces at Husky Stadium in Seattle for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's annual Race for the Cure. Ten women from Women's Health Action Network (WHAN) also attended, wearing black (for mourning), carrying signs reading: Cancer Prevention is Pollution Prevention; Early Detection is not Prevention, and There is NO CURE.

It was perhaps this last sign which sparked the heated response from Race organizers. As the woman in black stood with their green signs at the finish line, two irate organizers charged over and demanded the "protesters" leave.

"We're not protesting," stated WHAN's Colleen Kelly. "We're educating."

In the past 30 years, the U.S. has poured $30 billion into finding a "cure" for cancer. Although we are no closer than we were 30 years ago, mounting numbers of people, particularly women, are contracting cancer; particularly breast cancer. In the same 30 years, a growing body of evidence indicates a correlation between increased environmental chemicals found in some plastics, pesticides, and bleached paper and certain transformations in the endocrine system. This could well be the cause of increased rates of breast cancers, endometriosis, declining sperm counts, and immune dysfunction.

So, 30 years, $30 billion, no cure, and epidemic rates of breast cancer. What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong, purports WHAN, is you can't "cure" cancer. Individuals can survive cancer, but our environment furiously makes victims of countless others. Since mid-century, we've pumped pollutants into the ocean, air, and land at an alarming rate, and our habitat is returning the favor.

However, key participants in the so-called "war on cancer," particularly the American Cancer Society (ACS) and Komen Foundation, are notably remiss in mentioning the environmental causes of cancer.

The Cancer Epidemic

By the year 2000, cancer is expected to kill one million Americans per year, overtaking heart disease as the leading cause of death (statistic courtesy of American Cancer Society).

Virtually every nation in the world reports rising breast cancer rates, especially among older women.

Scientists acknowledge that only 20-30% of breast cancer cases can be traced to "known causes" such as genetics (perhaps 5%), diet, smoking, age at first menstruation, age at menopause, and exposure to nuclear radiation. Regarding the remaining 70-80%, however, experts express continued puzzlement.

The increase in cancer might be partially explained by a greater emphasis on early screening: cancers that previously went undetected are now counted. But this theory falls apart under the sheer weight of the victim list. It also fails to account for the rising mortality rate.

Currently breast cancer is second to lung cancer as a cause of cancer death in women--42,000 per year. Incidence rates have increased from 1.2% annual growth from 1940 to 1982 to approximately 4% annual growth between 1982 and 1987.

In 1969, my mother was 30. She faced a 1 in 20 chance of developing breast cancer. Today, I am 30; my chances are 1 in 8. I am 60% more likely to get it than Mom was at my age. But Mom's not expressing a whole lot of concern these days. She died in 1985. Cancer.

Dangerous Chemicals

Back in 1964, Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of pollution in her famous book, Silent Spring. Today Carson's mighty quiet on the subject. She died in 1964. Cancer.

In 1964, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of all cancers are due to synthetic carcinogens. One group of dangerous chemicals, organochlorines, is a class of industrial agents made of chlorine and carbon. The combination is basically indestructible making it an ideal medium for industry.

Organochlorines do not occur in nature. They are used to manufacture plastic and pesticides. The end products, the by-products, and the production process all expose humans to organochlorines. Paper, for example. Pulp and paper industries use chlorine bleaches to whiten paper. The process of bleaching (chlorine) paper (carbon) releases dioxin, one of the most deadly substances on earth. According to Greenpeace, there is no such thing as a safe level of dioxin.

Mounting evidence suggests that organochlorines are persistent in the environment and in the human body. They are bio-accumulative, increasing in toxicity and magnitude as they move up the food chain.

Greenpeace released a comprehensive report in 1993 entitled Chlorine, Human Health and the Environment: the Breast Cancer Warning. Cited are 177 organochlorines found in tissues of human and animals: 177 that simply did not exist 50 years ago.

Women's bodies are particularly vulnerable to organochlorines because these chemicals accumulate in fatty cells in the breast and because they mimic estrogen causing abnormal cell reproduction.

"One cell divides into two; two cells divide into four," writes Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge. "normal cells are consumed by abnormal ones. Over time, they congeal, consolidate, make themselves known. Call it a mass. Call it a tumor."

At age 34, Tempest Williams-who counts herself among the clan of one-breasted women-became the matriarch of her family. "Most of the women in my family are dead," she writes. "Cancer."

Profit Motive

"To fully understand the big picture," says WHAN's Maia Syfers, "you have to come from the point of view that we live in a free enterprise, profit-oriented society."

First manufactured around the turn of the century, organochlorine production escalated during World War II. When the war ended, chemical companies turned to the domestic market. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Dow Chemical, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI, to Europe what Dow is the US), Occidental Chemical and the like made millions.

When scientists started making connections between cancer and chemicalization in the early 60s, the industry rebuffed environmental regulations placing profitability above all else. As our health industry is moving closer to a for-profit model, so has the cancer establishment.

The Link to Industry

A yearly budget of approximately $350 million renders the American Cancer Society one of the wealthiest charitable agencies in the world. It is important to examine who the major funders and Board members are. Board members are often executive directors and assorted higher-ups from pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

Deb Schiro, Program manager for Detection of ACS's Seattle branch, says ACS's volunteer boards make all the decisions. "Staff lobbies, but can't vote," she explains.

"The people at the top understand money comes first," says Women's Health Action Network's Colleen Kelly. "They may have a place in their heart for people who are sick, and most of the people who work and volunteer for the ACS are well-meaning. But who is on the board is critical."

Of late, the Komen Foundation finds itself largely funded by the Chlorine Chemical Council, the manufacturers' association for the chlorine industry. An internal CCC newsletter dated Oct. 17, 1994 announced the CCC as a major Komen underwriter. The keynote speaker at Komen's Oct. 21 awards luncheon was none other than J. Roger Hirl, head of Occidental Chemical. Thus banners at the 1995 Race for the Cure proclaimed CCC as a proud Komen Foundation sponsor.

In addition to the intimate relationship between nonprofit organizations and their industry donors, the inner workings of industry are suspect. Imperial Chemical Industries for example used to own a subsidiary called Zeneca (now a separate company). Zeneca makes the "anti-cancer" drug Tamoxifen. Research shows Tamoxifen may shrink existing breast cancer tumors. There is no evidence that Tamoxifen can prevent cancer, but there is some speculation it causes cancerous growths in liver and ovaries.

It seems Imperial Chemical and Zeneca influence what the American Cancer Society promotes as anti-carcinogenic. Not surprisingly, ACS promotes Tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention. They do not mention possible side-effects.

"The attitude is that the answer to breast cancer is another drug, not addressing the environmental causes," states Maia Syfers. "To take a drug is readily acceptable-even if that drug is a possible carcinogen. And the fuel behind that is profit."

It gets worse. There are two documented cases where ACS suppressed evidence for the benefit of industry. In the first instance, a 1994 episode of Frontline ran a segment investigating the effects of pesticides on children, challenging the idea of "safe levels." Frontline argued that tests used only adult men to determine safety levels, whereas children are much more susceptible. In compiling a rebuttal, the pesticide industry procured the services of a well-known PR firm, Porter-Novelli. Porter-Novelli went to a client for whom they had done pro bono work: American Cancer Society. ACS backed them up.

In another instance, when Greenpeace issued its first report linking organochlorines to the worldwide cancer epidemic, the Chlorine Chemical Council threw together a statement demanding further proof. The statement was made by epidemiologist Dr. Clark Heath, MD. Heath is Vice President of Epidemiology and Surveillance Research for ACS.

When asked about potential conflict of interest, ACS's Deb Schiro responded: "My guess is, in both cases, ACS was advocating more research before jumping to conclusions. My personal thinking is exposure to pesticides can result in cancer, but my personal opinion is not based on scientifically rigorous research. What is needed is peer-review research and multiple studies to see if there is a strong indication of a relationship between a given substance and cancer. This method can be slow and frustrating, but it is the only method that is scientifically sound."

"When we finally came out saying there was a link between tobacco and cancer," says Schiro," people listened precisely because we are conservative and slow-moving."

Cure or Prevention

A well-meaning volunteer at the Komen Foundation's Dallas head-quarters says, "A lot of us suspect the environment does have something to do with breast cancer development. We were just discussing that this morning. We get the most recent information from the ACS and the National Cancer Institute and I don't have anything here on breast cancer and the environment." The Foundation neatly sidesteps the issue of CCC underwriting by stating their mission is providing support groups and resources for survivors, not analyzing the environment. There are other organizations for that," says one Seattle Race organizer requesting anonymity.

"It's become clear that those talking about a cure are industry pawns," says cancer activist and writer Judy Brady. "Those talking about prevention stand in opposition to the industry."

In Conclusion

Yes, diagnosed today, you have a greater chance of surviving cancer than you did a generation ago. But let's keep our definitions straight. Early detection is not prevention.

Treatments, made possible by the investment of millions of research dollars, are putting millions of dollars back into the pockets of chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

Early detection and advanced treatment are responses to cancer. They are not prevention. Prevention involves looking at the underlying causes of the epidemic and doing what needs to be done to stop it.

Author Alle C. Hall encourages us not to give up hope: Israel banned use of the pesticide DDT and within a decade saw a marked decrease in breast cancer rates. Alle is an feminist activist and freelance writer living in Seattle.

Lori Mudge, Seattle Greenpeace organizer says, "Organochlorine in the environment at levels that threaten human health is neither natural nor unavoidable. Safe alternatives currently exist for all major uses of chlorine. For example, oxygen bleaching for pulp and paper and citrus-based solvents instead of chlorinated ones." Contact Lori at Greenpeace at 206-632-4326 for details on activities to reduce local industrial pollution.

Contact Susan McLain at Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation in Seattle at 206-343-5171 about their "Reach for Unbleached" campaign.

Positive Steps Toward Breast Health

  • Positive Steps Toward Breast Health
  • Get regular exercise which stimulates blood circulation. This will aid in reducing PMS symptoms and increase elimination of toxins. Walking 20 minutes a day can make a huge difference.
  • Limit coffee.
  • Buy chlorine-free water, laundry bleach, paper products, tampons, etc.
  • Send your breasts love messages. Tell them you adore their size, shape, sensitivity and the pleasure they give you. Counteract the negative body images all of us women have internalized. Be defiant against those negative messages.

Go to Health Care Without Harm to read about efforts to eliminate harmful plastics from the health care industry.

Go to My House is Your House to read about the second most used plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and how you can join the movement to phase out the use of this serious environmental and health hazard.

Remember: 85-90% of us will not get breast cancer.

Cancer Prevention Ideas at

Washington Toxics Coalition has info pertinent to WA State.

20% of breast cancers do not show up on mammograms. Mammography is detection, not prevention.

African American women have lower incidence, but higher death rates, from breast cancer than do their white counterparts. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among African American women.

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