The focus on Breast Cancer Awareness Month has me thinking a lot about cancer. I’ve run, walked, and raised money for The Cure along with millions of others over the years, yet there is still no cure. Huge amounts of money are raised every year, but less than 25% actually goes to research The Cure. Breast cancer rates have increased by 40% in my generation (since 1978)*. Given this sad statistic it’s clear to me that research is not getting enough funding.
As the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, I’m feeling more strongly than ever that we have to think about prevention, not just cures. There are many theories about what causes cancer, but few concrete answers. Studies continue to uncover environmental contributors and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of breast cancer and other cancers. Things like:
- Being overweight
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet
- Excessive alcohol use
Then there are the factors that I can’t control: family history of cancer and growing older.
My Risk Factors
I grew up in a world of convenience; products designed to make life easier and “better” but that may come with a price tag.
Quick and convenient, but loaded with fat that contributes to being overweight and fillers that deliver little nutritional value.
Reconstituted, modified and preserved so you just add water – no “cooking” required. What do we lose in the way of nutritional value when our foods are altered so much for convenience? And what about the packaging – styrofoam (or polystyrene) is a known carcinogen.
Preserved foods that will live forever on your shelf. What’s in those preservatives? What’s in the remarkable packaging that helps keep them “fresh” on the shelf? The plastics, cans and bottles containing BPA, etc.
Products guaranteed to clean your shower, toilet bowl, or floor all without scrubbing. Do we really know what chemicals we’re bringing into our homes with these trusted cleaning products?
What synthetic ingredients and chemicals lurk in the lotions, soaps, deodorants, and makeup I use? Lead, aluminum, parabens, ethylene oxide, triclosan, etc.
My work keeps me chained to a computer. I have the desktop computer where I spend much of my day. When I’m finished there, I move the flag to the living room with my laptop and continue working, but at least I’m in the vicinity of my family. It’s hard to get your heart rate up when you’re sitting on your behind.
Beyond these items of convenience, what about eating foods that have been genetically modified (GMOs)? These include corn, canola (canola oil) and soybeans, just to name a few. What are the consequences when we change the DNA of our food? Remember that adage “every action has an equal and opposite reaction?” I haven’t read many conclusions on this yet, but I have to wonder. It seems that new things or processes applauded and welcomed for their benefits, years later show serious health consequences.
Back to Basics
Is living a life of convenience toxic? All of this makes me think it’s important for us to get back to basics. The foods produced for convenience are so far removed from the foods my grandparents ate, they likely wouldn’t recognize them. The fact is, our lifestyles have changed dramatically from the world our elders knew. Their work didn’t consist of sitting in front of a computer all day, inactive.
I’m not a naturally green person, but circumstances have helped me to become a greener, more environmentally conscious person. I grew up in a military family, bouncing from post to post, never questioning the lifestyle. But I realized as an adult, that I never had a true place to call home. It’s been almost ten years since I moved from suburbia to the woods of Maine. I yearned for this place to call home. A place where I’d have some breathing room away from the overly populated neighborhoods I’d known.
Since that move to Maine, I have become much more connected to the land. I love my place – the woods, the wildlife, the privacy, the space. Maybe my connectedness is in part due to age. Looking at 50 before long, I’ve been through the search of who I am career wise, working my way up the corporate ladder and abandoning it for a simpler, saner life.
It wasn’t until I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan a few years ago that I gave way for Paul to begin raising our own meat chickens and turkeys and keep hens for eggs. I was saddened and a little sickened to know the reality of where our food comes from. This is something we never could have done in suburbia.
When the economy went to pieces, my family, like many others, had to learn to exist on a whole lot less. It didn’t take me long in that world of truly pinching pennies to realize that, for the most part, processed foods are more expensive than raw foods. I began baking our own bread and doing more cooking with basic whole ingredients. I gave up the quick boxed instant pasta and rice meals and learned to cook the same types of meals from scratch. It took Hannah just one viewing of Jamie Oliver’s video on how chicken nuggets are made for her to jump on the whole food bandwagon.
This slow progression towards healthier eating came in part from greater awareness of the world and necessity. Yes, I still use canned tomato sauce and other prepared ingredients, but I’ve learned to read labels and to discriminate. We eat store bought beef or hamburger, but much less often. I still buy that package of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice (my favorite prepackaged prepared food), but it’s an occasional casserole ingredient, not a staple.
When money was tight and I had stretched the budget as far as it would go, I discovered that inexpensive vinegar could be a very effective household cleaner. And that baking soda and borax can make powdered dishwasher soap. Who knew?
What Are The Odds?
Cancer has touched my life in many ways. My father, age 77, is a colon cancer survivor. My mother, 73, has survived uterine cancer. My dear friend has stage 4 breast cancer and is struggling to hold onto her life. I know more people in my close circle than I have fingers, who have battled cancer – breast cancer or otherwise. Sometimes I wonder, when is it my turn? It’s sad and scary that the odds are pretty good someone in my immediate family will be touched by cancer.
Changing the Tide
So how do I turn the tide? I have a 14-year-old daughter and it scares the crap out of me to think about how her environment is impacting her health. How do I protect her from cancer, or at least stack the odds in her favor for a healthy life?
- I encourage her participation in school sports and summer camps to keep her moving.
- I drag her off on weekend hikes when I know she’s perfectly content scrolling through Facebook and listening to her iPod.
- I’m teaching her how to cook real food and that cooking isn’t opening a box and adding water or popping a plastic container into the microwave.
- Although she may never raise her own protein when she grows up, she’s learning important things about how food is produced so she can become a wise consumer.
- I’m helping her make healthy food choices by talking with her about calories and carbs and being selective about the foods I store in the cupboard.
- I’m teaching her that Doritos (another favorite processed food), cookies, etc, are a treat to be enjoyed occasionally. Dessert can be an apple. And dessert is not an inalienable right.
- I encourage her to wear sun screen and a ball cap when she’s outdoors for long periods.
- I’ve talked to her about the dangers of smoking and being around others when they smoke.
- When I have a drink at home, it’s one glass of wine and we talk about the dangers of excessive drinking. However, in writing this post I realize this conversation needs to cover more than the dangers of being drunk and driving under the influence.
- I explain to her what a mammogram is and why I get one. Although they are diagnostic and not preventative, the test can and does save lives.
- I am trying to learn how to better manage stress while trying to give her healthy ways to deal with the stress in her life.
- I am trying, as much as possible, to give her a carefree childhood, insulating her from undue stress. And that’s tough when she hears talk about paying bills or figuring out how to put meals on the table with a tight budget.
All of this doesn’t make me a paragon – I make as many mistakes as the next parent. However, Hannah and I do talk. Maybe what I need to do, when discussing all these healthy habits, is connect the dots a bit better. I need to connect the dots so she understands the relationship of healthy living to reducing the risks of cancer. Attacking the risks of cancer also addresses the risks of other pervasive health issues like heart disease and diabetes.
What Will Make a Difference?
Will all this make a difference? I don’t know. But something needs to change in our world to reduce the incidence of cancer. I realize in writing this, that one of the best things I can do isn’t necessarily raise money for The Cure or buy pink products. It’s to live by example.
Hannah is the most important thing in my life. If I want to make a difference in her life and future health, I need to teach her how to live healthy at a very basic level. These are the things we can control. And frankly, this means retraining myself, if I am to teach by example.
It’s time to put energy into wellness and disease prevention rather than simply treating illness. Every person has a responsibility for their own health. And parents? We have the responsibility to be pro-active with the health of our children. It’s through action, not just awareness that we change the course of breast cancer.
Give your your children a fighting chance by setting a good example.
* Stats from The Breast Cancer Fund