Breast Cancer and Home Pollution

Living Clean: Fighting a Silent Killer

  • Sharon Guynup
  • Oct 01, 2004
A writer’s battle with breast cancer changed the way she lives and prompted her to transform her home in Hoboken, New Jersey, into a healthier respite.

Cancer. It’s a word I never expected to hear after I’d had a lump removed from my breast “as a precaution” in 2000. I was 41 years old, fit, energetic—and had always eaten a healthy, low-fat diet. No one in my family had cancer. I was convinced it was a mistake, that pathologists had confused my biopsy with someone else’s.

But that wasn’t the case. Additional surgery ensured that all of my small tumor had been removed—and determined that no insidious, traveling cells had set up shop elsewhere. Still, my doctors recommended an aggressive course of action: radiation, chemotherapy and five years of Tamoxifen, an estrogen-suppressing drug.

I was skeptical about bombarding my body with poisons in order to cure it. Luckily, we had caught the disease early. I had some time to explore the options.

Even though my journalist’s instincts were to gather information, I was terrified of what I might learn. I cringed every time I heard the word “cancer.” My husband, Steve, did the research for me, pouring over books and websites, sharing only what I needed to know. At the same time, I talked to breast cancer survivors and consulted several doctors.

It’s hard to make calm, educated choices while confronting a deadly disease. After two months of deliberation, I opted to undergo radiation. But I turned down chemotherapy and Tamoxifen, which I found would increase my survival odds by just a few percentage points, from about 90 to 96 percent. A new study showed that for what I had, chemotherapy could ultimately do more harm than good.

Throughout this time, I was tormented: Why had I developed cancer? I started doing research, thinking that if I figured it out, perhaps I could prevent the cancer from recurring.

I learned that the odds of an average American developing cancer at some point in their lifetime is extraordinarily high: 1 in 2 for men and 1 in 3 for women, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer has risen 40 percent over the last three decades. In 2003, 267,000 American women were diagnosed with the disease; 1 in 9 will fight breast cancer sometime in their lives.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain tumors, lung, colorectal and prostate cancer are also on the rise. The World Resources Institute reports that cancer deaths are increasing and most cases cannot be explained by recognized risk factors, such as diet or heredity. And the National Cancer Institute recently reported that at least 80 percent of all cancer cases are linked to environmental causes.

I focused in on environmental toxics. Before my diagnosis, I believed the government regulated anything that could be hazardous. I was naïve.

Since the end of World War II, more than 75,000 new chemicals have been developed and put into use in industry and products of all kinds. Eighty percent of applications to manufacture a new chemical are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency within three weeks. And once those chemicals are on the market, U.S. laws do not require companies to conduct health and safety tests on products containing them—products including shampoo, furniture, fertilizer, dish detergent, window cleaner, synthetic carpeting, weed killer and even some children’s toys. What’s more, we encounter many of these chemicals again, after they filter into our air, water and soil. In 2001, U.S. industries released some 6.2 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment and “managed” 26.7 billion pounds of toxic waste.

In recent studies, a cocktail of potentially harmful man-made chemicals has been found in hundreds of people tested. Scientists are finding that even low doses of some industrial chemicals can be far more harmful than previously believed. “The potential health impacts of these chemicals run the gamut of all our body systems,” says Jane Houlihan, vice president of research at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that investigates environmental health threats.

Houlihan believes there are substantive connections between our “body burden”—or toxic load—and cancer. She says concerns are rising about cancer cases being triggered by substances—many of them avoidable—in our living and working environments.

Armed with this information, I made a conscious decision to try to avoid exposure to as many chemicals and hormones as possible—and to try to lower my body burden. Within a few months, I changed virtually every aspect of my life. I joined an organic food coop. I bought a new water filter for my tap and an air filter for my bedroom. I tossed out toxic cleaning products and changed the way I furnish and renovate my home. But I realized that I can only go so far in limiting my intake of toxic substances: Ultimately the government needs to establish strong guidelines for industry that protect everyone’s health.

It’s been four years since my cancer diagnosis. My new lifestyle agrees with me: I feel healthier than I have in years. And the best news is that the results of my most recent MRI were “excellent.”


Steps the author has taken to reduce her exposure to toxics include:

Avoiding processed foods loaded with chemical additives, artificial colors and preservatives.

Sticking to low-fat meat and dairy products, which are less likely to carry carcinogenic chemicals created in manufacturing of herbicides and other products.

Never heating meals in plastic containers. Studies show some plastics’ chemical components can leach into food at high temperatures.

Drinking filtered tap water and using a filter on the showerhead to limit exposure to chlorine, pollutants and heavy metals.

Running an air filter in the bedroom at night and growing air-cleansing indoor plants such as peace lily, English ivy and bamboo palm.

Limiting air pollution inside the car by closing windows at gas stations and while driving in heavy traffic and tunnels.

Cleaning the house with natural products. (Guynup combines vinegar and water for a disinfectant and uses baking soda as a cleanser.)

Buying all-natural furnishings, floor coverings and renovating materials.

Although today’s energy-efficient homes offer environmental benefits, they also bring one disadvantage that can threaten homeowner health: indoor air pollution. Rated one of the nation’s top five environmental problems by the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution – from substances such as mold, bacteria, volatile organic particles, carcinogens, allergens and even long-banned pesticides such as DDT — often is worse in almost air-tight energy-efficient homes than it is in older homes.

Some contaminants originate in traditional commercial products, ranging from carpeting and household cleaners to air fresheners and furniture treated with flame retardants. One recent study found PCBs and DDT among household contaminants in 120 homes in Cape Cod

The good news is that environmentally conscious homeowners need not sacrifice energy savings to live in a healthy home. According to experts, removal of contaminants, along with increased awareness about less harmful alternatives and better storage, maintenance, cleaning and ventilation, can often take care of indoor hazards.

For tips on reducing indoor air pollution, visit the websites of the following organizations: American Lung Association, National Center for Environmental Health, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rene Ebersole

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