From the Executive Director: Enough Awareness! We Need Systemic Changes

By Karuna Jaggar, BCAction Executive Director

I’ve been asked several times since I began my work with Breast Cancer Action what my vision is. My vision for BCAction is clear: we must change the conversation about breast cancer from awareness to action!

At BCAction, we will continueto spearhead systemic changes to address and end this breast cancer epidemic. In addition to better treatment options and overall health equity for people living with breast cancer, we must identify and eliminate the root causes of this epidemic, which lead to so many of us being affected. We must end this epidemic so that in the coming years and decades, you and I, our daughters and granddaughters, our mothers, our sisters, our loved ones — present and future generations of women, and some men — will not have to face a new diagnosis of breast cancer.

At Breast Cancer Action, we advocate for less toxic, more effective, less expensive options for all breast cancers. That includes triple negative breast cancers, metastatic cancers, BRCA and hereditary cancers, the most aggressive breast cancers, and DCIS. We demand answers for all the questions regarding which women (and men) will benefit from which treatments, and whether we aren’t over-treating in some instances.

Better treatment is only part of the equation. We need to stop cancer before it starts. The goal of turning breast cancer into a manageable disease is not good enough. Today the greatest risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman. (Still, I was shocked to see that the high risk factors that made a woman eligible for a recent “pills for prevention” study included being over age 60!) As a woman raising two girls, I believe addressing the epidemic means stopping breast cancer before it starts. We must shift the conversation away from simply early detection to a fuller understanding of why so many of us are getting breast cancer in the first place, and why we are getting it at younger ages. We bear a societal responsibility —not just as individuals who are worried about our own families but as members of small and large communities who have a collective responsibility to prevent present and future generations from developing breast cancer.

All of this, these core principles, points to one clear need: systemic change. This means putting people before profits, whether it is drug development for patients or employing the precautionary principle. This means removing the burden of prevention from the individual and placing it squarely where it belongs, on our society and regulatory systems.

We can’t simply raise awareness. Indeed, awareness has currently led to a perverse situation where most women in the United States vastly overestimate their personal risk of breast cancer!

We can’t “run” away from breast cancer, no matter how much we exercise, no matter how many pink ribbon miles we walk. We need policies that protect all of us, regardless of our lifestyles or our ability to make the “right” purchases. No matter how much organic we eat, how quick we are to rid our kitchens of plastic, how much effort we put into safe cosmetics, we can’t just opt out of the toxins that come to us through our daily environment: through our water pipes and air, through the coatings on our store receipts and parking meter slips, and through our office environments and off-gassing carpets and paint, whatever natural products we’ve chosen in our own homes. With more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals in use, this is not something we can change by individual choice; this is a matter of regulatory change.

We can’t simply tell people that rBGH is linked to an increased risk of cancer, so they should stop buying products containing this ingredient. The onus shouldn’t be on consumers: many neighborhoods don’t carry organic products, and many families can’t afford them. We need to take it out of distribution.

We cannot continue to put the blame on women: lifestyle choices are not adequate prevention. And don’t get me started on the ways that early detection are misconstrued commonly as prevention.

Science clearly demonstrates that genetics and lifestyle combined account for no more than 30 percent of breast cancers. While current thinking is that breast cancers and other diseases stem from a complex interaction of factors, evidence increasingly shows that environmental toxins are a factor in a majority of breast cancers.

Furthermore, a policy that works to prevent breast cancer through lifestyle ignores the hard facts that we don’t all share equal access to healthy lifestyles and adequate treatment options. There are very real structural inequities that lead to unequal access, and these issues are too easily overlooked when we insist that women can protect themselves from a breast cancer diagnosis through diet and exercise and family history.

But to bring about systemic change we must work together. This year, we will be deepening our national and international partnerships to educate, extend, and mobilize our activist base. We’re doing this in our work to challenge Myriad Genetics’s patent ownership of the BRCA1 and 2 genes as the June/July Court of Appeals decision looms closer. The following articles discuss the national and international impact of the upcoming ruling on women’s health care. We’re developing a series of webinars — check out The Politics of Breast Cancer if you missed the livecast — and Think Before You Pink® toolkits to provide our members and their communities with the resources they need to change the conversation. We’re cohosting a “Roundtable Discussion on Latinas and Breast Cancer” to examine the growing inequities that exist around breast cancer incidence and mortality, and working to collaborate on ways to address these discrepancies as a cancer community.

In The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde wrote: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am afraid.” I invite you to join me in changing the conversation and taking action. Together, we can work to bring about the systemic changes needed to stop cancer before it starts affecting future generations of women.

The Source—Spring 2011 | 6.8.11

© 2011, Breast Cancer Action ISSN #1993-2408, published quarterly by BCAction.
Articles on detection and treatment do not constitute endorsements or medical advice but are intended solely to inform. Requested annual donation is $50, but no one is refused for lack of funds. “Breast Cancer Action,” “Think Before You Pink,” and the BCAction logo are the registered trademarks of Breast Cancer Action. All rights reserved. Not to be used without express written permission.

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2 Responses to From the Executive Director: Enough Awareness! We Need Systemic Changes

  • Marj Plumb says:

    Brilliant. I love how you so clearly show that it’s not just a matter of political choice to focus on regulatory change, it’s a matter of necessity. Over 80,000 synthetic chemicals! Individuals do not have a chance against those odds. Congrats on a well crafted argument and vision.

  • deborah says:

    For starters, I believe we are surrounded by food proucts containing extremely harmful, bacteria promulgating ingredients, such as corn and soy and wheat – and especially their derivative oils. They are laced in all kinds of halth and non-health products.

    I have metastatic breast cancer and have been through conventional treatment which two years later left me with heart disease and lung malfunction. I am now in the process of healing from all of it with the aide of a naturopath and a ketogenic type diet (see and the book Nourishing Traditions). I’ll let you know when the cancer is completely gone. D.B.

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