Off your chest 

Breast cancer conference to explore the full range of risks

During the three minutes it takes to boil an egg or walk to the bus stop and kiss your child goodbye each morning, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Each three-minute walk, each three-minute egg, another woman. According to the American Cancer Society, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes; every 11 minutes a woman dies from the disease. This year, an estimated 192,000 women will be diagnosed and 46,000 will die. Most of us had heard the statistics, but until someone we know is diagnosed—or dies—these statistics often remain numbers inked on a page, yellow lines whizzing by on a nighttime highway.

“For a disease like breast cancer, which has reached epidemic proportions, awareness is the best and most broad weapon we have,” says Gail Gutsche, project manager at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit women-centered environmental justice organization in Missoula, and coordinator for the fourth annual Western Montana Breast Cancer Conference being held Nov. 3 at the University of Montana.

As the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer increases dramatically, especially among women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the meaning of awareness changes and expands. These days, awareness not only includes knowing at what age to get a mammogram, how to perform a self-exam to look for breast lumps or irregularities, or what foods are touted as the most “cancer preventative.” In today’s world, where most garages are filled with chemicals that make the grass grow greener, and kitchen closets hold cleaners and solvents that make bathroom tile shine and kitchen floors clean enough to eat from, awareness also means knowing what chemicals you are eating, drinking and breathing–and how to minimize your exposure to them.

“The conference is about education,” says Gutsche. “We want to help educate women, their families, and the health community about the links between breast cancer—all cancers, for that matter—and pollution, as well as to offer information and options for prevention, support, and treatment.” Panels and workshops at this year’s conference include such topics as “Lymphedema (swelling of the arm): Prevention and Coping Strategies,” “A Cancer Cure that Grows on Trees,” and “Psychological Aspects of Breast Cancer, Positive Coping, and Fear of Recurrence.” The conference, Gutsche says, is about sharing knowledge, experience, and understanding of breast cancer on all levels.

“People want to know what they can do, for themselves and for their loved ones. Breast cancer is profoundly affecting people’s lives,” she says. “I don’t know a single man or woman who has not been touched by breast cancer on some level.”

It was not until after World War II that cancer stopped being a disease that was only mentioned in a whisper, as though the person had contracted it as a result of some moral shortcoming or failure. Ironically, it was during the late 1940s when more than 6 million largely untested chemicals were introduced on the market and released into our air, food, water, and soil that the seeds were planted for these increasing numbers of cancer diagnoses and deaths.

“Certain chemicals are stored in our bodies from birth, chemicals that have entered the body through breast milk or from an X-ray, for instance, chemicals that the body cannot break down,” says Dr. Nancy Evans, an activist and health science writer who will deliver the conference’s keynote speech entitled, “Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer: Evidence vs. Proof.”

“If we do with breast cancer what we did with the tobacco industry and wait four to five decades for evidence to become proof, we will lose hundreds of thousands more lives,” Evans says. “We cannot wait for ‘proof’ before taking actions to reduce our exposure to carcinogens and harmful chemicals. We must show the evidence that the environment is linked to breast cancer and act from there. Too many women are dying to wait for ‘proof.’”

As part of her presentation, Evans will show clips from “Rachel’s Daughters,” a documentary she co-produced. It features a group of eight women with breast cancer, including herself, who serve as investigators and interviewers traveling the country, talking with scientists studying the causes of breast cancer, as well as with women whose breast cancer suggests an environmental connection. Since the documentary was completed and aired on HBO in 1997, three of the investigators have had recurrences and died, as well as several of the women they interviewed with breast cancer.

The film is named for Rachel Carson, the scientist and author of Silent Spring, the landmark book that launched the American environmental movement. In 1962 Carson wrote, “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subject to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”

The chemicals Carson talked about are everywhere and pervade our planet: A hamburger and a glass of milk from a cow injected with hormones; a spray to keep fleas off your family pet; an X-rayed ankle here; an X-rayed abdomen there, plastic used to heat soup in a microwave oven; estrogen-rich birth control pills taken to prevent pregnancy or regulate menstruation; a closet full of dry-cleaned clothes; too much time on a cell phone; a television watched with a chair too close; pollution from cars, trucks, factories, mills, plants.

A lot can happen in three minutes.

The conference is organized by WVE in conjunction with the American Cancer Society, Blue Mountain Clinic, Breast Cancer Resource Network, Partnership Health Center/Montana Breast and Cervical Health Program, Camp-Mak-a-Dream, and Living Art. For more information, contact Gail Gutsche at 543-3747 or e-mail WVE at

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