It may be the final day of Breast Cancer Awareness month, but educating yourself on how to minimize your environmental risk and pushing for a cure shouldn’t be relegated to October alone. Here, clean-living guru Sophia Gushée, a Well+Good Council member and toxic-exposure expert, explains how you can reduce your exposure to carcinogens.
During my first pregnancy, I ate microwave popcorn regularly, thinking it was a healthy snack. Years later, when my eldest daughter was a toddler and my second child was a newborn, I learned about a chemical, PFOA or C8, that’s often used to create non-stick characteristics on pots and pans, fabrics, and food packaging (including the inner lining of microwave popcorn bags). It was being investigated for its health risks by the C8 Science Panel, a panel of epidemiologists appointed by a court to help resolve a class action lawsuit. Miscarriage, birth defects, and cancer were among the list of potential health effects being explored.
It was gut-wrenching to learn that I may have inadvertently harmed my daughter.
Needless to say, it was gut-wrenching to learn that I may have inadvertently harmed my daughter. I, along with other affected people, waited years to learn what the C8 Science Panel would determine. In 2012, the C8 Science Panel found probable links between C8 and thyroid disease and cancer.
During this time and for years after, I learned about other carcinogens in things that I could have prevented from entering my home and my children’s bodies if I had been more informed: arsenic in rice and rice by-products (rice cereal is often among the first foods fed to infants), nitrosamines in baby bottles, talc in baby powder, and too many more examples.
My reactions were always mixed. Parts of me were heartbroken, mad, and worried. Other parts of me didn’t want to know this difficult truth. Overwhelmingly, I couldn’t ignore what I was discovering: I had to learn more so that I could identify opportunities to protect my children.
Keep reading for 4 things I wish the world knew about cancer.
In September, Well+Good asked me (along with the other Well+Good Council members), “What do you wish the world knew about wellness?” In this article, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I’m taking the opportunity to respond to a variation of this question: “What do you wish the world knew about cancer?”
1. Most cancer isn’t genetic
I wish more people knew that only 5 to 10 percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects. The remaining 90 to 95 percent are influenced by environment and lifestyle.
2. Exposure to carcinogens doesn’t guarantee you’ll get cancer
Those statistics helped me realize that exposure to a cancer-causing agent doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get cancer. As a mother of three who studied our everyday toxic exposures, it brought great relief to realize that my children’s proximity to environmental carcinogens did not mean that they were necessarily destined to develop cancer.
For a great example of this, look at lung cancer rates among heavy cigarette smokers. One of the most well-known and studied carcinogens, tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals. At least 250 are known to be harmful, including at least 70 that are known to cause cancer in people or animals.
A 2006 study found that among “heavy smokers” (at least 25 cigarettes per day), the lifetime risk of death from lung cancer was estimated to be 24.4 percent in males and 18.5 percent in females, compared to 0.2 percent for people who never smoked.
Still, while that may seem low, smoking can harm you in other ways, including other kinds of cancers, infertility, miscarriage, and more. It “damages nearly every organ and organ system in the body,” according to an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine.
3. Genetics aren’t destiny…
I wish more people knew about epigenetics, a burgeoning study of how our environment and lifestyle may influence our genetic expressions. For example, having the gene for breast cancer (the BRCA1 gene) doesn’t mean that you will necessarily get breast cancer. Many factors influence whether that breast cancer gene gets activated. “Epigenetic mechanisms are one of the five most important considerations in the cancer field,” according to the chief of the Carcinogenesis Division of Japan’s National Cancer Center Research Institute.
4. …and neither is your past
It’s never too late to benefit from healthier choices. In the case of smoking, we know that quitting offers immediate benefits. And the sooner, the better: Quitting before the age of 40 reduces your chance of dying prematurely from a smoking-related disease by 90 percent, and by two-thirds if you quit by age 54. In preventing cancer, we have many more ways to reduce our risks.
Be the most conscious “switchboard operator” you can be
In trying to simplify the highly complex, and not fully understood, dynamics of cancer, I think of a switchboard. If the switchboard represents the genes that we inherited and the switches represent all the influences of what is actualized from the switchboard, then switches can be activated by many things we control—like smoking, diet, and exercise.
It helps me to remember that our bodies are brilliant and capable of incredible resiliency.
It helps me to remember that our bodies are brilliant and capable of incredible resiliency. In trying to be the best switchboard operator I can be for myself and my family, I try to minimize the burdens on my family’s bodies and support and protect our biological processes as I can. What does this mean? For starters: placing higher importance on nutrient-dense meals and snacks, family dinners, sun protection, minimizing toxic exposures, restorative sleep, regular exercise, stress management, and scheduling downtime. These are helpful goals for more reasons that just trying to prevent cancer!
When I ran this perspective by Karl Kelsey, MD, professor of Epidemiology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown University as well as director of the Center for Environmental Health and Technology, his response was, “Your approach seems uncommonly full of common sense.”
What should Sophia write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to email@example.com.
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