Beyond the Pink

By Kara Kenan

We spoke with people in communities affected by PFAS contamination around the country as part of our research for the Say Never to Forever Chemicals campaign targeting corporate giant 3M, We were inspired by these fierce activists and are pleased to share their stories with you. Kara Kenan, who lives in North Carolina, was exposed to toxic PFAS for much of her life. Since her breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 35, she has worked to support people living with breast cancer, and to educate others about pinkwashing by corporations that contribute to the breast cancer epidemic. 

I grew up with PFAS. I was born on a military base in Michigan that used Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) loaded with the toxic compounds. Later in life, I lived on another military base in Texas that trained the Air Force Firefighters. Affectionately called “Fire Dogs,” their constant training meant near-daily use of that same fire-fighting foam full of PFAS compounds. In 2010, three years before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I moved to Brunswick County, NC, near where chemical-giant Chemours had been polluting the water source with PFAS for 30 years – unbeknownst to the people using that water source, of course.

In case you haven’t heard of PFAS, a quick explanation: In the 1940s and 1950s, 3M, a Fortune 500 company that makes a variety of consumer products, including Post-its and tape, developed PFOS and PFOA. These two chemical compounds are part of a large class known as PFAS. PFAS are called forever chemicals because of their persistence in the environment. 3M has done its best to cover up the fact that PFAS are dangerous: the compounds negatively impact human metabolism, fertility, fetal growth, cholesterol levels, and the immune system. PFAS are known to cause cancer, and may increase the risk of breast cancer.

PFAS and Breast Cancer

Time and again, I have been exposed to these forever chemicals and I can’t help but wonder how they have contributed to my breast cancer diagnosis and the downward spiral of my health. Sure, having a BRCA2 mutation meant I had a higher than average risk, but not everyone with a BRCA mutation gets breast cancer. The BRCA genes are what are called tumor repair genes. BRCA mutations don’t cause cancer but they increase the risk by making it harder for the body to deal with rogue cells so they don’t become cancer. And I’m extremely alarmed that the risk conferred by a BRCA mutation has actually gone up over the last two generations, which is the same period we’ve introduced many toxic chemicals into our everyday lives. Could all the PFAS exposure over the course of my life have contributed to my risk, somehow flipping the switch to ensure I would fall victim to this relentless disease?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, shortly after my wedding. In the weeks that followed, I spent lots of time worrying, filling out forms at doctors’ offices, recounting family medical history, and reviewing my own risk factors. Thirty-five-year-old women don’t get breast cancer, right? Wrong. Diagnosis was followed by a bilateral mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy treatment, 30 days of radiation therapy, a complete hysterectomy (my cancer was highly-estrogen sensitive, which meant I had to do everything I could to eliminate estrogen in my body), and implant reconstruction twice. I lost my hair, gained considerable weight, and suffered from lymphedema and cording in my left arm. I experienced neuropathy in my hands and feet. Later, my gallbladder suddenly stopped working. I was diagnosed pre-diabetic, developed hypothyroidism and am now being monitored for the onset of kidney disease. Needless to say, the breast cancer diagnosis and the intense treatment that followed have changed my world.

Monetizing the Pink Ribbon 

I’ve made great strides to stay positive, and this experience has turned me into an advocate and connected me to others. I now help people through their cancer diagnosis and treatment and I developed my area’s only breast cancer survivorship program. In that work, I began to notice just how prolific breast cancer is in southeastern North Carolina. Everyone seems to know someone who’s had breast cancer. And, alarmingly, our region seems to have particularly high rates of very young women being diagnosed with the disease, and our local cancer center reports seeing more male breast cancer cases in recent years than ever before.

As a person living with breast cancer and founder of a small, local nonprofit that serves our breast cancer community, I am definitely an advocate for “Think Before You Pink.” I often post to social media and get into debates with friends and family members about the amount of pinkwashing that happens in October every year. What started as a campaign to raise awareness and funding for breast cancer research and community support has grown into a monstrous industry. Come October, everything seems to be pink and companies everywhere want to monetize that pink ribbon.

I get particularly angry when the company trying to benefit financially from the pink ribbon is one of the top producers and polluters of chemicals that may contribute to breast cancer risk! Our communities and industries must come together to demand that we say “Never to Forever Chemicals!” 3M covered up the risks associated with PFAS for more than 70 years so it could continue to use and profit from these chemicals at the cost of public health, and it MUST be held accountable. Selling pink Post-it notes and pink stethoscopes does nothing but raise 3M’s profit margin!

Beyond the Pink

I hope you will join me in demanding that 3M stop producing, using, and selling PFAS chemicals. They must put an end to their long history of disregarding their impact on public health. Friends, do not support 3M’s pinkwashing this month. Don’t let them use “pink” to draw our attention away from the damage they are doing to our environment and our health!

Want to honor your mother, sister, or friend diagnosed with breast cancer? Donate to a local charity or volunteer with an organization that needs your help. Challenge pinkwashers everywhere! And for goodness sake, take action and stand up to 3M and polluters like them, demanding they stop contributing to a forever problem!

Diagnosed at 35 years old, Kara has been living with breast cancer for almost six years. A loving wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, Kara is also a passionate educator, photographer, and decorated Veteran of the USAF. She is a founder of Going Beyond the Pink, a nonprofit organization serving women and men in treatment for and surviving breast cancer in southeastern North Carolina. Kara believes that knowledge is power and she believes in empowering others to be their own best advocates.

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