Is The Developed World We’ve Created Giving Us Cancer?


Published:

The World Health Organization has listed processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon as carcinogenic, but they are still popular foods.

© Garrett Ziegler, Flickr CC

I had assumed that the small lump in my breast was a blocked milk duct from nursing my seven-month-old son. The news that I had stage 2 breast cancer stunned.

“But it’s not in my family,” I told the radiologist. “And I have a healthy lifestyle! Why did I get breast cancer?”

In one way or another, friends and relatives here in the U.S. asked the same question. Why had this happened to me? Their explanations coalesced around a single point: bad genes.

But when I told my friends and host family in Haiti, where I’ve been studying social and political life for the past decade, their reactions were different. They asked: Who had done this to me? Was a colleague angry? Was a family member getting revenge? Or was someone simply jealous, especially after the good year I’d had landing a new job, having a baby, buying a house and having the Cubs win the World Series? Someone must have wished me ill will.

Hearing these interpretations awakened me from the foggy shock of the initial diagnosis, and I started to look at cancer with my professional eye as an anthropologist.

My first realization was that the Americans’ and Haitians’ answers were not so different. Both responses located breast cancer as something that happens to someone else – to someone saddled with bad family genes, or someone who stokes jealousies. The responses shielded my kindred from acknowledging that cancer is something that could happen to anyone – that it could happen to them.

Cancer Incidence Increasing

One in eight American women will suffer breast cancer during their lifetimes. Some form of cancer will afflict nearly half – yes, one in two – of Americans.

This is not merely because we’re living longer. Cases of younger women with invasive breast cancer have increased 2 percent annually since the mid-1970s.

As far as cancer rates in Haiti go, reliable statistics do not exist. But we do know that cancers are on a steep rise there and across the developing world, especially for younger people. We also know that this rise has a lot to do with the toxins, pollutants, diets and lifestyles that accompany development.

Considering these numbers, I realized that I was asking the wrong question, and that the answers I was receiving, be they from U.S. or Haitian confidants, were incomplete.

The question should not be why did I get breast cancer, but why are we getting it.

Toward A Holistic Understanding

As an anthropologist, I approach social problems holistically. I strive to understand the big picture that is often lost by focusing on singular variables: genes, jealousy. Holism encourages us to look beyond linear relationships of cause and effect and toward the assembly of forces that together influence our behaviors, conditions and outcomes.

In her book Malignant, anthropologist S. Lochlann Jain equates cancer to a “total social fact.” She says cancer is “a practice whose effects fissure through seemingly distinct areas of life, thus weaving them together.” The rise of cancer as a leading cause of death traces the history of industrialization, the development of social, economic and political practices that define the “developed” world, from agribusiness to industrial chemicals to Superfund sites.

© jetsandzeppelins, Flickr CCWhen I broaden my gaze, carcinogens appear everywhere: in pesticide-treated produce, hormone-treated meat and dairy products, flame-retardant clothing and upholstery, cosmetics, birth control pills, household cleaners and soaps, gas fumes and the plastics that make up our world. Cancer infiltrates how we feed, clothe, clean, beautify and reproduce ourselves.

Granted, it is difficult to test all these factors to see which of them is killing us, and to what degree, if at all. There is no way to fit this cancerous environment, in all its entangled complexity, into a randomized control trial. We are all “exposed” as a fact of life. There is no control group.

But then again, if we continue to focus on the trees, we lose the forest. The problem is akin to discussions about climate change. It must be addressed not through piecemeal changes but comprehensive policies that target a way of life on Earth. We need to not only research and regulate specific poisons, like cigarettes or lead, but also to study the simultaneous and cumulative consequences of lifetime exposure to known carcinogens and contaminants in the environment.

Why do people, across cultures and societies, tend to focus on the individual person as the unit of analysis?

For one, it is fundamentally easier than focusing on a system: social, political or ecological. Laying blame on a person or a gene also plays neatly into the cultural metaphors we’ve sustained about all sorts of illness: that disease is a consequence of personal rather than societal failings. This certainly locates blame in the afflicted, protecting the well from facing their individual fears of illness. But it severely limits our ability to understand and eradicate collective epidemics, like cancer.

To be sure, genetics play a role in cancer, but that role has been wildly overstated. Fewer than 10 percent of women can trace their tumorous breasts to any genetic mutation, and fewer than 5 percent to the so-called breast cancer genes, BRCA 1 and 2. I am among the other 90 percent.

And yet, the bulk of funding for medical cancer research has focused on genetic causes, with only 15 percent of the National Cancer Institute budget dedicated to environmental oncology.

Not A Hex, But A Vexing Range Of Reasons

There is also some truth to the interpretations offered by my Haitian friends. I do not believe my cancer is caused by a hex. But the language of sorcery, which targets people as the source of illness, does raise relevant social factors beyond the biological family. Jealousies speak to the very real connections between social inequities, antipathies, stress and illness. Still, this explanation did not zoom out and grapple with the carcinogenic environment recently imported from the developed world.

Over the years I’ve worked in Haiti, I have witnessed diets shift from a variety of grains and tubers to imported rice, pasta and sugary snacks, the simple carbohydrates associated with higher insulin levels and increased breast cancer risk. Plastics have also invaded the country.

Most people get their daily water from plastic sachets that, under the hot sun, degrade and leak cancer-causing xenoestrogens. And then there are industrial agriculture, family planning initiatives or the leftover, processed meats repackaged and sold in Haiti.

If we continue to think of cancer as happening to other people, we will fail to ask the big questions, let alone answer them.

This idea first glimmered when my otherwise kind, smart doctor brushed off my environmental worries with a shrug of futility. “You can’t escape the world,” he said.

That may be true, but we make the world. “Through a continued, unrestrained, needless, avoidable, and in part reckless increasing contamination of the human environment,” the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel reported in 2010, “the stage is being set for an acute, catastrophic epidemic.”

The steep and recent rise in cancer in the developing world, terrible as it is, teaches us that another, less polluted world once existed. Can it again be possible?

Chelsey Kivland is a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. She strives to understand how and why people find meaning in power and conflict. Her current research focuses on local forms of leadership in a Haitian ghetto, and attempts to uncover the multiple and contradictory ways people compete for control over an area. She writes and teaches about violence, rituals of power, grassroots organizing, insecure cities, and Haiti.

This article was republished from The Conversation.

See also:
12 Ways To Get Rid Of Weeds Without Using Roundup
15 Simple Lifestyle Changes That Can Add Over A Decade To Your Life

The Conversation

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

February 17, 2019

Against the backdrop of morning routines, the possibility of a secure, kind and love-filled future is tantalizing. However, the notion of lasting stability may be fleeting. After touching her own North Node the Cancer Moon tests erratic Uranus and then…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

February 2019

Celebrating The Love And Valentine’s Week! Come detox, relax and get your romance or couples readings while you recharge in our sanctuary! We have a fun line up of readers and healers...

Cost: 3 service special - $60, single service- $25

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Unit A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Our outer world is a reflection of what lies within our collective inner worlds. By directing our thoughts in specific, positive ways, we have the potential to guide the world towards becoming a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Inner Space Meditation Center & Gallery
1110 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA  02138
View map »


Telephone: 617-547-1110
Website »

More information

Three weekly workshops with Ayal will be offered on February 10, 17, 24 from 10:30 to 11:30am In this meeting, we will talk about sleep and remind or teach simple techniques for an easier...

Cost: $20

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

MBSR: Mindful Based Stress Reduction Learn how to tap into your inner well of strength, peace, and ease. Mindfulness, as taught in the MBSR program, is recognized worldwide as the gold...

Cost: Free

Where:
Enlightened Interventions
25 Union St.
Worcester, MA  01608
View map »


Sponsor: The Center for Resilient Living
Telephone: 508-556-7022
Contact Name: Ginny Wholley
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Wednesday, February 20th–Saturday, February 23rd 9am-3pm each day Experience transformation guided by Mother Mary. Through Divine vibration, you will be aligned for quicker healing and...

Cost: $500

Where:
, MA


Sponsor: The LoveLight Center
Telephone: (207) 216-9584
Contact Name: Cheryl Banfield

More information

Discover how you can release tight muscles and improve range of motion in locked joints in a weekly ESSENTRICS stretch classes led by Raindrop Fisher, certified Essentrics instructor. Raindrop is a...

Cost: $10 drop-in / $100 for 12 classes

Where:
Village at Waterman Lake
Function Room - Chalet Bldg
715 Putnam Pike
Greenville, RI  02828
View map »


Sponsor: Healthier Fit Lifestyle
Telephone: 401-678-0950
Contact Name: Raindrop Fisher
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

ESSENTRICS with Raindrop is a dynamic, one-hour, slow-movement stretch and strengthening class that uses all the muscles of the body to liberate stiff joints and rebalancing the body so that you...

Cost: $5 donation

Where:
Pascoag Public Library
57 Church Street
Pascoag, RI  02859
View map »


Sponsor: Healthier Fit Lifestyle
Telephone: 401-678-0950
Contact Name: Raindrop Fisher
Website »

More information

This 8 week series in Tai Chi will provide you with everything you need to get started in a personal Tai Chi practice. Just for Beginners—there is no expectation, and no pressure in...

Cost: $137 for 8 weeks

Where:
Spiral Path Connections
218 Boston Street
Unit 104
Topsfield, MA  01983
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiral Path
Telephone: 978-314-4264
Contact Name: Johanna Hattendorf
Website »

More information

With Sherri Snyder-Roche. This yoga workshop will explore self-compassion, self-love and pushing through discomfort to help your recovery process. Recovery from divorce, eating disorders,...

Cost: $95 for 6 weeks or $17 drop in

Where:
State of Grace Yoga and Wellness Center
104 E. Hartford Avenue, Unit A
Uxbridge, MA  01569
View map »


Telephone: 508-278-2818
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

“Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you.” —Krishnamacharya Join us for an evening of deep exploration and transformation using the...

Cost: $30 (some hardship rates available)

Where:
Spontaneous Celebrations
45 Danforth Street
Jamaica Plain, MA  02130
View map »


Telephone: 617-233-6410
Contact Name: Allen Howell, M.Ed.LMHC
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Great readings at a great rate - only $20 for 15 minutes. Join us for a great day with lots of specials too! Featuring Amit’s Tibetan Singing Bowls and Silver Jewelry Sale!...

Cost: $20 for a 15 minute reading

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street
Suite 1-A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

This workshop will be a wonderful and interactive experience for parents and their child. You will:  1. Learn the importance of developing focus through basic mindfulness exercises....

Cost: $40

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Join us as we herald in the month of love with the archangels! It will be an evening of healing and soul replenishment. Our event will open with a brief message of love and support from the...

Cost: $40

Where:
private office
North Andover, MA  01845


Sponsor: Diana Harris
Telephone: 978-973-6637
Contact Name: Diana Harris
Website »

More information

6 Saturdays 10am–11:30am February 23–March 30, 2019 Taijiquan (Tai Chi ) is a healing martial art, using breath and movement together to strengthen the body and quiet...

Cost: $120

Where:
Metta Wellness
679 Pleasant Street
Paxton, MA  01612
View map »


Sponsor: Metta Wellness
Telephone: 774-245-5487
Contact Name: Rick Rocha
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags