Cancer and Women: Some Little Known Facts

Betty Beier and Carol Johnson
Women’s Cancer Resource Center
In June of 2001, the American Cancer Society and others reported that almost all cancer rates declined in the 1990s, a reversal of a trend of U.S. cancer rates that had grown for decades. The biggest factor responsible for the decline was said to be decreased tobacco use. For women, there was good news: a decline in new lung cancer cases of 0.2%. But despite all of the comfort we might take from this report, there is a catch: New cases of breast cancer are increasing.

Minnesota: A Healthier State?

There will still be an estimated 1.2 million new cases of cancer diagnosed this year in the United States, with about a half million Americans expected to die from cancer. But isn’t the picture a little better for people in the pristine lands and lakes of Minnesota? The University of Minnesota’s Cancer Center says that cancer rates are slightly lower than in other areas of the United States. But still, almost 20,000 Minnesotans will be told they have cancer in a given year. And about 9,500 of us will be women, with breast cancer the most common type of cancer diagnosed (about a third). Cancers of the breast, lung, colon and rectum account for 55% of all new cancers in women, while cancers of the uterus and ovary account for another 8.8%.

Some history

When President Nixon declared the "War on Cancer " in 1972, about one woman in 14 had breast cancer, up from one in 20 in 1940. Today that number is one in eight. And to undo a common myth, breast cancer is not a disease of elderly women. For women between 35 to 54, it’s the leading cause of death in Minnesota. What’s frightening is that 75% of women with breast cancer have not had identifiable risk factors.

The environmental-chemical connection

About 207 chemicals are known to cause cancer while 92 chemicals are listed with the EPA as suspected carcinogens. However, since World War II, about 75,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our free market, with a scant 5% of them tested for adverse health effects.

Cancer isn’t the only health concern. About 150 common chemicals have been linked to allergies, birth defects and reproductive abnormalities by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And scientists find that exposures to chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, diet and smoking play a role in Parkinson’s disease, too.

Testing challenges: women ignored

In testing for pesticide tolerances on our foods and fibers, our public watchdog agencies used to employ a standard of a 160 lb. male. But in 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act and changing the testing standard to that of a 40 lb. child.

All well and good, since this new stringent standard is an improvement over the male oriented standard. But there’s a new challenge. Chemical lobbyists now want to gut the 1996 law.

Women at home

Statistics from a 17-year study (Indoor Air Conference, Toronto, Canada, 1990) found that women who work at home have a 55% higher risk of dying from cancer than women working outside the home. Could it be due to the use of the common household cleaning products they use?

All during the year, but especially when windows and doors are shut tight, as in winter or in the heat of summer when homes are air conditioned and air isn’t adequately exchanged, women at home expose themselves and their families to some of the more toxic chemicals around.

For example:

  • Furniture polishes, deodorants, shampoos, nail polish and many cleaning products containing formaldehyde, a potential human carcinogen
  • Air fresheners and disinfectants with Orthophenylphenon, a carcinogen
  • Floor cleaners, waxes and polishes with petroleum solvents that may have traces of benzene, a carcinogen
  • Lawn and garden bug killers with diazinon, being phased out by the EPA, but allowed for outdoor use until June 30, 2003
  • PVC plastics and other byproducts of chlorine, which can leach dioxins (known human carcinogens) into household products and foods
  • Cigarette Smoke
What You Can Do

* Look at labels on the safety of chemicals before using them.

* Avoid diets high in animal, fish and dairy fats. It may not be the fats, but what’s in the fats, since animals store dioxins in their fats and subsequently pass them on to humans.

* Avoid purchasing plastic items that have the symbol #3 on them (PVC plastics)

* Use cleaning products that "Grandma" used to use: vinegar and water for window cleaning; borax for laundry stains; lemon juice and sunshine for blood and rust stains; baking soda and brillo pads for oven cleaning; baking soda for kitchen and bathroom fixtures; catsup for copper bottom pans and other inexpensive, non-toxic alternatives.

* Stop smoking

Read Up
Act Locally

Beyond Pesticides

University of Minnesota – Cancer Center

Life’s Delicate Balance: The Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer, Tayolor and Francis, 2000

Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment and Prevention, Ralph W. Moss, PhD, Equinox Press, Brooklyn, 1997

2001 Holistic Health Directory, Women’s Cancer Resource Center, Free to those living with cancer; others $25. Call 612-822-4846 or 1-877-892-6742

The Women’s Cancer Resource Cancer
4604 Chicago Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 612-822-4846

Sierra Club Minnesota Air Toxics Campaign
1961 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 651-646-8890

Cancer and Women

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