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

January 26, 2020

The recently new Moon in Aquarius chugs along void of course until evening. The laid back atmosphere is perfect for a restful, relaxing day. Dreams of the future as well as actual events can appear to play out in languid slow motion. Restive cabin fever…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

January 2020

What is an animal totem/power animal? Does everyone have them? Do animals communicate with us? Join us! Get these questions answered and more. We will explore the world of animals, learn how...

Cost: $65

Where:
Private Office
Andover, MA


Sponsor: Diana Harris
Contact Name: Diana Harris
Website »

More information

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Initiating Inspiration Book Club, a partnership with the Waltham Public Library and the Agape Spiritual Community. We are reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Copies of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3429
Contact Name: Louise Goldstein
Website »

More information

Discover Beauty. Discover Goodness. Discover Yourself. Your soul’s gifts are waiting. Breathe. Find stillness. The spark you need to ignite your life is here, within. Max Meditation...

Cost: $15

Where:
Modern Mystery School Boston
132 Charles St
3rd Floor
Auburndale, MA  02466
View map »


Sponsor: Modern Mystery School Boston
Telephone: 617-694-0994
Contact Name: Jordan Bain
Website »

More information

2nd and 4th Monday of every month This psychic message circle is for anyone wishing to raise their connection using their psychic centers known as the “clairs.” Learn how to use...

Cost: $20

Where:
Messages From Heaven Healing and Learning Center
646 Central Street
Suite 3
Leominster, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us for this special evening with Magdalena of My Metaphysical Maven. The topic is fear and anxiety and how to tell what's anxiety versus what's a message from the universe. We'll...

Cost: Free

Where:
Waltham Public Library
735 Main Street
Waltham, MA  02451
View map »


Sponsor: Waltham Public Library
Telephone: 781-314-3441
Contact Name: Debora Hoffman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Did you know that practicing energetic hygiene plays an important role in maintaining a healthy mind, body, spirit and even your home? Everything is made up of energy including us! Energy can...

Cost: $10

Where:
Center For Inner Wellness
26B Main Street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center For Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

January 29–March 25 With Jody Daniels, MBA and Natalia Cepeda, MA Why take Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? To better manage your stress and enhance...

Cost: $600–$650

Where:
CHA Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
1035 Cambridge St
Suite 21A
Cambridge, MA  02141
View map »


Telephone: 617-591-6132
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join the Marion Institute for our Winter Film Series, a curated line-up of health documentaries that will change the way you think about food, medicine, and disease. Each film will be followed by...

Cost: Free

Where:
St. Luke’s Hospital McBratney Amphitheater
101 Page Street
New Bedford, MA  02740
View map »


Sponsor: Marion Institute
Telephone: 508-748-0816
Contact Name: Patti Rego
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: $40

Where:
Friends Meeting House
5 Longfellow Park
Cambridge, MA  02138
View map »


Sponsor: Allen Howell, M.Ed. LMHC
Website »

More information

January 31–February 2, 2020 Enjoy heart-opening talks, music, spiritual discussion, connect with like-minded people. Free and open to the public. Attend any or all sessions.  Guest...

Where:
Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel
Springfield, MA


Telephone: (508) 754-9042
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Led by Chuck Raffoni ( E-RYT200) named a “person making postiive change in the world for the LGBTQ Community” by Pride Connections and featured on NBC's Today Show for...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Athlete's Yoga
Woburn, MA


Sponsor: www.yogawithchuck.com
Contact Name: Chuck
Website »

More information

Participate in the fourth annual Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair!  Saturday, February 1, 2020 from 11:00am–5:00pm in Lincoln, Massachusetts The Lincoln Holistic Wellness Fair...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

This free event showcases an impressive variety of wellness practitioners offering complimentary sample treatments, short classes, demos, presentations, and healthy treats. Mark your calendars...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Pierce House
17 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur

More information

Get a personal teaching for Brother Granite's new Visionary Shamanism Tarot. This class includes the new Visionary Shamanism Tarot deck as well a 90 minute one on one class with Brother Granite...

Cost: $80

Where:
407 Deans Plaza
407 Rte 44
The Enchanted Forest Taunton
Raynham, MA  02767
View map »


Sponsor: Brother Granite
Telephone: 774-208-6195
Contact Name: Granite
Website »

More information

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