Breast Cancer and Environemnt

Breast Cancer as an Environmental Health Issue

My friend and colleague, Michele Goldwasser, died of breast cancer recently. She was diagnosed with cancer initially 10 years ago, and it recurred in 2015. She was in treatment for the rest of her life. This post isn’t specifically about my friend, or the other women I know who are currently being treated for breast cancer. It’s about the little-discussed links between breast cancer and our environment.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one in eight women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer each year. In the 1960s, that number was much lower, and a woman’s lifetime risk for breast cancer was one in twenty. Family history accounts for about ten percent of breast cancer diagnoses. What accounts for the rest?

A lot of that depends on how you view health. In the United States, our main model for understanding health and disease is the biomedical model. Individuals are diagnosed with illnesses or health problems, and are treated individually for those specific problems. There is a lot of talk of prevention as well, but prevention takes the form of “individual lifestyle choices,” mainly diet and exercise. Our rising obesity is linked to many health problems, including breast cancer, but is still mostly treated as an individual problem requiring better diet and increased exercise.

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Is Our Problem Overpopulation or Overconsumption?

Population growth is one of the biggest environmental challenges humanity faces. Or is it? Quite often in discussions of population, growth alone is seen as the main problem. How will we feed, house, clothe ten billion people? In my own lifetime so far, the human population of the earth has more than doubled, from 3.4 billion to over 7.4 billion. Surely this is the root of our problems? Wouldn’t curbing population growth solve many of our biggest environmental problems?

Alan Weisman seems to think so. In his 2013 book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Weisman argues that “the Earth can’t sustain our current numbers, and inevitably, one way or another, those numbers must come down” (p. 430). There is an awful lot to this 431-page book, and it is definitely worth reading, but the basic argument hinges on how many people can live on our planet. The human population has grown beyond the bounds of the planet to support it, and that we must take drastic measures to reduce it before Nature does it for us. This is a popular argument, and one that has been around for a long time.

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