There’s a weird article in the NYT this week by George Johnson called “Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer.” He proposes that, thanks to innovations in the treatment of other diseases, particularly heart disease, people are living longer than ever. Cancer, he suggests, goes hand in hand with old age: since people are outliving heart disease and other illnesses that used to be deadly, more of them will grow old and get cancer.
I don’t buy it. The theory that old age equates with more cancer isn’t compatible with BRCA-related cancers. BRCA+ women who were born after 1960 have much higher rates of cancer than their BRCA+ positive ancestors. In fact, HBOC is being detected on average 10 years earlier in baby boomers and their daughters than in previous generations. In other words, women from the same families, who carry the same genetic mutations, are getting cancer more often at younger and younger ages. That means that these higher rates of cancer cannot simply be the result of people living longer.
What’s changed between 1910 and 1960 to cause younger BRCA+ women to have higher rates of cancer than their grandmothers did? Widespread corporate pollution. The ubiquity of parabens and plastics. Pesticides on vegetables and lawns. Carbon emissions. Hormones pumped into dairy and meat. Increasing use of toxic chemicals in food production and household products. The Breast Cancer Fund has a long list of environmental carcinogens that women encounter regularly, yet Johnson obtusely overlooks the well-documented role played by environmental factors in causing cancer.
Johnson implies that high cancer rates are the byproduct of affluence: you’re going to die somehow, and if you live long enough it’ll probably be from cancer. Indeed, as Breast Cancer Action notes, women in industrialized nations have higher rates of breast cancer than women in unindustrialized nations. But cancer risk within industrialized countries varies considerably by race, class, and region. Racial minorities and the poor have long shouldered the burden of environmental degradation and “environmental racism” surely influences cancer rates. Moreover, women’s reproductive systems are often the first places to register environmental pollution.
Feminists have been advocating for more research into the environmental causes of breast cancer for decades, but such demands have often gone unheeded because they challenge American capitalism. Figuring out what causes breast cancer and taking steps to prevent it would require that corporations stop polluting our food, our communities, and our households. It would require a massive overhaul U.S. law and reformation of enforcement agencies. It would be costly.
Conversely, pinkwashing and mammography are compatible with neoliberalism. The onus shifts to the consumer, who must take on the responsibility for early detection and treatment–all of which is extremely lucrative for the cancer industry (See Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues for more on the cancer industry). In other words, eradicating the environmental factors that contribute to growing rates of cancer is bad for corporations, while treating growing rates of cancer is very very good for their profit margins.
Johnson’s attitude is fatalistic and, worse, utterly depoliticized. He makes cancer seem inevitable, something that we should accept as a consequence of long life expectancies in wealthy countries. I call bullshit. Cancer is not inevitable, even for BRCA+ women (even though it sometimes feels that way). American women need to demand a non-toxic world from politicians and corporations, not blithely accept the bodily consequences of mass pollution and corruption.