All Life is
Cancer in Humans and Wildlife
Janette D. Sherman, MD / Life's Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer 2000
Man has lost the ability to foresee and to forestall.
He will end by destroying the earth.
-Albert Schweitzer, quoted in Silent Spring
It may be that biologists, rather than physicians, will be the major contributors to the health of our planet and its people. It was Rachel Carson, a biologist, who researched and wrote of the harm to wildlife caused by the combined action of pesticides and radiation. In the tradition of the observant biologist is Theo Colborn, who, with her colleagues, provided a significant breakthrough in understanding the hormonal effects of environmental contaminants. In July 1991, a gathering of some of the world's most astute scientists was held at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin,1 where they defined the pattern of diverse endocrine malfunction seen throughout the animal kingdom. They revealed a picture of the Brave New World we should rigorously seek not to leave as a legacy to our children.
The conferees, studying wildlife over the globe, described ominous findings of disease and death linked to environmental pollution. Exposure to toxic chemicals that possess unintended hormonal actions has resulted in anatomic, physiologic, reproductive, carcinogenic, and behavioral abnormalities across all forms of animal life: in mollusks, fish, birds, seals, and rodents. These creatures are to we humans as canaries were to the miners. We must understand that the destruction of eons of evolutionary function and development in wildlife foreshadows destruction of the entire biosphere, humans included.
These widespread adverse effects were attributed to xenoestrogens. Xeno- comes from a Greek origin, meaning "foreign." Foreign itself is not bad: else how do we share and spread culture and ideas? But xenoestrogens are less foreigners than invaders, gaining entrance by the Trojan horse of seemingly harmless routes: milk, meat, cheese, fish, the products we use to nourish ourselves and families. Like the invaders of Troy, after the xenoestrogens gain entrance to the bodies of animals and humans alike, they weaken defenses and wreak their harm of cancer, hormonal disruption, immunological abnormalities, and birth defects.
Xenoestrogens are an insidious enemy, but they have had help from powerful allies: the purveyors of products and chemicals, and legislators, regulators, and scientists reluctant to bite the money-laden hands that feed them.
Wingspread researchers found that birds exposed to xenoestrogens show reproductive failure, growth retardation, life-threatening deformities, and alterations in their brains and liver function.2 "There is direct experimental evidence for permanent [organizational] effects of gonadal steroids on the brain as well as reproductive organs throughout life."3This means that offspring whose brains have been altered are unable to function as had their parents. They become different in ability or function.
This means that the sea of hormonally active chemicals in which the fetus develops may change forever the health and function of the adult, and in some cases, may alter the course of an entire species.4 Worldwide there are reports of declining sperm counts5 and reduced ratio in births of male babies.6 Without the capacity to reproduce, a species ceases to exist. Extinction is forever; a species loss has never been reversed.
The data derived from animal observations are unequivocal: breast and genital cancers, genital abnormalities, interference with sexual development, and changes in reproductive behavior are all expressions of a root cause. A possible connection between women with breast cancer and those having children with reversed sexual orientation is a question that bears study. This is not an idea from science fiction, considering what we have learned from observing wildlife and the effects of inappropriate hormonal influence upon the breast, brain, and reproductive organs. If an unequivocal answer were to emerge from human observation, it could have a significant impact upon the prevailing political and economic landscape, and may finally settle the nature or nurture issue of sexual orientation.
Silent Spring-Silent Women
Considering the accumulated knowledge linking chemical and radioactive contamination of the environment with increasing breast cancer rates means we must focus our energies and efforts on prevention.
Early were the eloquent words and pleas for prevention from Rachel Carson. Her book, Silent Spring, originally published in 1962, while she herself was suffering from breast cancer, is still a bestseller. Ms. Carson documented wholesale killing of species; animals, birds, fish, insects; the destruction of food and shelter for wild creatures; failure of reproduction; damage to the nervous system; tumors in wild animals; increasing rates of leukemia in children; and chronicled the pesticides and chemicals known at that time to cause cancer. This was over 30 years ago!
Carson's is a book for every citizen, for without understanding of our collective actions and permissions, we cannot govern democratically. In Australia, a citizen is required to vote. In the United States, proclaimed by some politicians as the "greatest democracy on earth," often fewer than 50% bother to vote in a major election. Of those who do take the time to register and vote, few are sufficiently alert and/or educated to vote with intelligence, thought, and compassion. Requiring participation in the governance of ones' own country is not a bad idea. Requiring thoughtful voting may be more difficult, especially when it comes to such issues as cancer, pesticide use, consumer products, nuclear radiation, toxic chemicals, and environmental destruction. Taking this thought one step further, this democracy could do far worse than to require reading of Silent Spring as a requirement to vote! Radical? Perhaps. But is the ongoing cancer epidemic any less radical?
One successor to Ms. Carson has emerged in the person of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, poet, and scientist. In her book, Living Downstream, she writes eloquently of the connections between environmental contamination and cancer. Dr. Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 20, a highly unusual diagnosis in a woman, a young woman, a nonsmoker and nondrinker. She pursued the question, why? She realized a connection with our wild relations and she asks:
Tell me, does the St. Lawrence beluga drink too much alcohol and does the St. Lawrence beluga smoke too much and does the St. Lawrence beluga have a bad diet . . . is that why the beluga whales are ill? . . . Do you think you are somehow immune and that it is only the beluga whale that is being affected?7
The portion of Dr. Steingraber's book that struck me most personally was when she says:
First, even if cancer never comes back, one's life is utterly changed. Second, in all the years I have been under medical scrutiny, no one has ever asked me about the environmental conditions where I grew up, even though bladder cancer in young women is highly unusual. I was once asked if I had ever worked with dyes or had been employed in the rubber industry. (No and no.) Other than these two questions, no doctor, nurse, or technician has ever shown interest in probing the possible causes of my disease-even when I have introduced the topic. From my conversations with other cancer patients, I gather that such lack of curiosity in the medical community is usual .8
I take her words as an indictment of the medical and scientific establishment, whose point of view must be changed. Certainly the lack of curiosity among physicians, scientists, policymakers, and politicians has contributed to the epidemic of illness among humans and wildlife alike.
An equally talented woman is Terry Tempest Williams, an ecologist and wildlife researcher, whose book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, tells the story of her Utah family, whom she labels "a clan of one-breasted women." Ms. Williams contrasts the life-affirming awareness of the Great Salt Lake wildlife refuge against the erosion-of-being, as cancer takes away the women in her family: her mother, her grandmothers, and six aunts. She writes: "I cannot prove that my mother Diane Dixon Tempest, or my grandmothers, Lettie Romney Dixon and Kathryn Blackett Tempest, along with my aunts, developed cancer from nuclear fallout in Utah. But I can't prove that they didn't."9
Times are changing. It is becoming impossible to ignore the carnage of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, nuclear radiation, and chemical carcinogens, alone and in combination, invading nearly every family with cancer.
Facing this reality may be too much for some people, afraid to look, or afraid of being the next victim. The story of cancer is not an easy one, and neither is cancer. But if we do not exert our efforts to prevent this disease, we doom our children and grandchildren to repeat our collective errors.
What does it take to change from environmental destruction and random killing to affirmation of life? Can the protection of life for ourselves and our
environment be accomplished by women with breast cancer; the women at risk for breast cancer; the families of breast cancer victims? Who should lead? If we citizens can't and don't try, what are our alternatives?
1. Colborn, T., Clement, C., Eds. Chemically-Induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection. Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., Inc. Princeton, NJ. 403 pages. 1992.
2. Fox, G. A. Epidemiological and pathobiological evidence of contaminant-induced alterations in sexual development in free-living wildlife. pp.147-158. In: Colburn, T., Clement, C., Eds. Op. cit.
3. vom Saal, F S., Montano, M. M., Wang, M. H. In: Colborn, T. Clement, C., Eds. Op. cit., pp.17-83.
4. Lutz, D. No conception. The Sciences. 36(1):12-15,1996.
5. Swan, S., Elkin, E. P, Fenster, L. Have sperm densities declined? A reanalysis of global trend data. Environ. Health Perspect.105(11):1228-1232,1997.
6. Davis, D. L., Gottlieb, M. B., Stampnitzky, J. R. Reduced ratio of male to female births in several industrial countries. J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 279(13):1018-1023, 1998.
7. Steingraber, S. Living Downstream. Addison Wesley, Reading, MA. p.139, 1997.
8. Ibid., pp. 137 and 138.
9. Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Vintage Books, Division of Random House, New York. p. 286.1991.