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Oct
13

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Breast Cancer Survivor Beth Arky on Breast Cancer and the Environment

Beth Arky is a veteran journalist and breast cancer survivor. Diagnosed at age 39 with Stage IIA breast cancer, she underwent a lumpectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy and 33 doses of radiation, and remains cancer-free 11 years later. Arky, who has edited at national publications including Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide and contributed to People, USA Weekend, the New York Daily News and iVillage, has also blogged for Seventh Generation, the cleaning and paper products company, about the many small steps she’s taking to “green” her family. She’s now writing for Child Mind Institute, and we’re honored to have her share her story with us.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked when I received my breast cancer diagnosis in August of 1999, but I was. I was only 39. Still, both of my grandmothers had had breast cancer. The disease had killed my father’s mother at 48, when he was 18, while my mom’s mother had succumbed to leukemia after a nine-year battle that had ravaged her body. According to the autopsy report released days before my fourth birthday, the disease had infiltrated her liver, spleen, lymph nodes, kidneys, lungs, left adrenal gland and cerebellum. Her gallbladder, uterus and adnexae had been removed.

Given that tragic family history, along with the fact that I am of Eastern European Jewish descent, I followed my gynecologist’s directive and had my first mammogram at 35. I opted to skip genetic testing, telling myself that I was being sufficiently proactive with screenings and self-exams. So when a doctor told me he’d found a lump during a routine exam, I asked, “What lump?” That’s when he instructed me to leave my arm stretched over my head, placed the tip of my index finger on the upper left quadrant of my left breast and changed my world forever. There it was, pea-sized and rock-hard. I’m sure he said something reassuring, along the lines of “It’s probably nothing. But you should get it checked out.”

You better believe I got to my one-stop imaging center the next day, where they performed a mammogram, sonogram and core needle biopsy all within a few hellish hours. Days later, when I couldn’t wait any longer, I called the head radiologist for the results on a pay phone – remember, this was 1999 – from the lobby of Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. It felt like someone was playing a cruel cosmic joke on me, since I had just finished another painful physical therapy session to regain the use of my right hand and arm after surgery to repair a smashed elbow. Nothing, not even knowing the likelihood of predetermining genes, could have prepared me for her words: “I’m sorry. It’s malignant.” I was hysterical for days.

The post-lumpectomy report showed that I had Stage IIA breast cancer, with no lymph node involvement. (My old-fashioned surgeon waved aside my question about the sentinel node biopsy that would become common practice, and removed 18 nodes.) One surgery, four rounds of chemo, 33 doses of radiation, and countless screenings, doctors’ appointments and general feel-ups later, I remain cancer-free, knock on wood.

Soon after my treatments ended, my oncologist began urging me to be genetically tested and have my ovaries removed. There was really no reason to keep them. My husband, Alan, and I had spent three years on a fertility quest and were reaching the end of the road before my diagnosis. None of my pre-chemo eggs had been harvested and the jury was still out as to the safety of pumping hormones into my body. (Three years later, we would adopt our son, Matthew, now 7.)

Despite the fact that I worship the ground my doctor walks on, I’ve gone 11 years without heeding his advice to be tested. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve managed to find one lame excuse after another: I’m way too busy. Why even bother? I’m predisposed, how could I not be? Besides, what would I do with the information if I did test positive? I wasn’t prepared to do prophylactic surgeries, especially once I had a young son to run after.

So I’ve continued faithfully with my screenings and tried to make some healthier lifestyle changes. But I can no longer deny this basic fact: If I’m a genetically-loaded gun, I am at greater risk for ovarian cancer, which is far more deadly since it’s very difficult to detect in the early, more treatable stages. And so I’ve finally run out of reasons to put things off. I know I need to go for genetic counseling and testing and, if definitively needed, surgery to cut those potential time bombs out of my body.

Early on in my journey through cancer land, I attacked my diet with a vengeance. I was overweight and I knew I wasn’t eating right. In my eyes, fat equaled poison; I ditched red meat, pork, butter, cheese, even my beloved ice cream. There was a sweet side effect, of course. I started losing weight. But, over time, I’ve fallen off the wagon, especially when contradictory studies kept being released regarding diet and cancer. Fat-laden foods have crept back onto my plate — and hips. I have, however, kept to my convictions regarding no meat or pork.

Thanks to my oncologist, I learned long ago not to microwave in plastic and to pass on barbecued foods, especially when they’re charred. He even offered up a recipe idea: steam fresh veggies wrapped in tin foil and place on the barbie. But let’s face it, it isn’t the same thing, so once in awhile I live a little with a grilled turkey burger or hot dog.

But my true education began some 18 months ago when I began blogging for Seventh Generation, the green cleaning and paper-products company. Initially, my assignment was to write breezy posts on trying to “green” my family one small step at a time. Instead, it’s been a crash course in environmental and health issues, radically heightening my awareness of what a deadly mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Not to sound paranoid, but toxic chemicals are lurking everywhere, even in the most innocent-seeming places, poisoning our water, our air and our bodies.

Right out of the gate, I got my first humbling lesson. There I was, proudly extolling my mom’s cost-cutting, environmentally friendly idea of reusing plastic bags, only to learn that washing the bags actually releases toxic elements.

From there, I discovered more ugly truths. Most sunscreens contain carcinogenic agents, while the flame retardants developed to keep our kids tucked safely in their beds are doing the exact opposite.

Everywhere I look now, I view things through green-tinted glasses. Last May, things really became personal when the President’s Cancer Panel released its landmark report stating a clear link between environmental chemicals and an increased risk of cancer. The authoritative, bipartisan panel didn’t stop there, placing the blame for the unchecked proliferation of such potential toxins on our failed government’s criminally negligent chemicals policies.

Thanks to my blogging gig for 7Gen, I had already become much more politicized. Did you know that since 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency has only required testing of 200 of the 80,000 chemicals now on the market? Now, 7Gen, along with partners like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, is pushing for toxic reform through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which requires safety testing of all industrial chemicals and puts the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe in order to stay on the market.

As Seventh Generation cofounder Jeffrey Hollander wrote when the act was first introduced, “With an increasing focus on toxic chemical exposure in humans and a new report showing newborn babies with traces of 287 toxic chemicals in their blood at birth, the time for action is now.” I’m convinced that environmental toxins are leading not only to skyrocketing cancer rates but also to major health crises including autism and other developmental delays in children.

So even as I learn, write and advocate, I’ve been trying to make greener, safer choices at home, though it isn’t always easy. Organic, hormone-free foods can be more expensive. For cost-cutting tips, I get facebook alerts from The Big Green Purse, as well as an e-mailed newsletter from the Organic Trade Association.

Many cosmetics and personal care products have carcinogens we’re applying to our bodies every day. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a fantastic safety database covering an encyclopedic range including makeup (you might be shocked to find your major brand of lipstick in the “high hazard” range), hair color and bleaching, nail polish, baby products and sunscreen. And those perfumes that smell so good? Very, very bad.

For a wealth of general information, I look to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, one of 7Gen’s partners in the push for much stronger federal chemicals regulation.

Meanwhile, I carry my own water bottle and shopping bags, I look for dye-free medicine for my son, I read labels, I’ve stopped polishing my fingernails and have cut way back on pedicures. I’ve started switching over to safer cosmetics and have found green paper and cleaning products that do the job just fine.

I won’t begin to pretend that I’m perfect. There’s much I could do to reduce my carbon footprint. I live in Brooklyn so I don’t have to use my car all that much; still, I could hoof it or use mass transit even more. I haven’t completely abandoned my favorite lipsticks and I will still spritz some perfume on very special occasions. When it comes to organics, I can talk a good game; I could do much better. I haven’t made a complete switch from plastic containers to glass.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a wonderful thing but we can no longer ignore the link between all cancers and the increasingly toxic world we’ve created. The tragic aluminum sludge disaster in Hungary, the BP oil spill, the Superfund site recently named in a former industrial area not far from my gentrified neighborhood – all are just more reminders of what’s at stake. It’s time to make the world a safer place, on both a personal and global level.

Listen to Beth on “The Stupid Cancer Show,” produced by the I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation. And be sure to read Lois’ post, It’s Time to Re-Think Pink.

Comments

  1. Judy Becker says:

    Hi Beth…I’ve enjoyed your article…I’m recovering from colon cancer with chemo ending about beginnning of Feb 2010…at first my appetite was so messed up, I didn’t want to eat anything but carbs & sweets…oncology nurses said eat whatever I could tolerate…wouldn’t last long…it took a few months..now I’m on path to healthier eating…more veggies-fruits-cut out meats-reduced foods that have additives & preservatives-bread on limited basis Oroweat Dark Rye-avoid high fructose corn syrup-once in a while will eat dark chocolate…I do a lot more reading of food labels…try for more organic…I’m adding this site to my favorite list…am noticing more & more about foods-home cleaners, etc…I have good medical team & call them with questions…also, I’m grateful that with the internet…so many people such as yourself can share their stories & connect with so many people…thank you for sharing your story…from one “survivor” to “another”….Judy

  2. Beth,

    What an eloquent and moving post. I’m going to share it on Facebook. I agree with the need to rethink our relationships to food, cosmetics, etc. But I just don’t think I can give up perfume!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liane

  3. My story began in the fall of 2014 when I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It shattered my world and everything I believed in – having been physically active, a non-smoker, a non-drinker and at my ideal weight. Then boom!

    I began re-evaluating my lifestyle choices, my eating habits and my environment. It took me on a very different path. I left my day job and focused on my health. During the journey I was inspired to re-design my career and create something that would have value and purpose. Oddly enough it began with my passion for fragrant candles.

    Scented candles have always been a part of my life and after discovering a large majority of mass marketed candles contain harmful chemicals and additives in their products, I was unwilling to simply walk away from using scented candles. Instead, I set out to design the perfect medium in order to create a highly fragrant, clean burning, pure and natural product that was safe for my family, my pets and the environment.

    My pets were an integral part of my healing process and after nearly 18 months of research, I created a proprietary blend of 100% certified organic waxes. I sourced the highest quality essential and fragrant oils that are phthalate free, creating captivating scents of wax melts designed in the shape of a paw. Why the paw? To pay tribute to our furry friends who help us through life’s difficult times. In particular my 3 cats who were beside me and loved me unconditionally during the entire time. We also donate a portion of our profits to animal shelters.

    I don’t know whether the frequent use of scented candles had any influence on my health prior to my diagnosis, but I do know that I will NEVER again use any scented candle/wax melt that isn’t 100% organic and natural. My health and that of my family and pets is far too precious to take the risk.

    Thank you for creating a forum for women to share their stories. Please check out my new Paw Melts website and let me know what you think => http://www.pawmelts.com/

    Warmly,
    Sarah

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