Jennifer Lunden, a Pushcart Prize-winning writer and affiliate practitioner at True North Health Center in Falmouth, Maine, is the author of “Exposed,” a feature story about breast cancer in the September/October 2013 issue of Orion. She answered a few questions about the story behind the story, and told us more about what’s wrong—and could be different—about the misleading movement for breast cancer awareness.
“Exposed” is a somewhat unusual magazine story in that it’s both investigative and personal. When did you begin to put those two pieces together—that your experience was part of a bigger system that needed to be questioned?
Well, by the time I was forty I had read two articles citing convincing research indicating that mammograms are not nearly as effective as we have been led to believe. I came of age in a time when Rosie O’Donnell and Olivia Newton-John were singing duets on national TV about the importance of mammograms; I had gotten the message loud and clear: Responsible women get mammograms starting at age forty. Mammograms save lives. The research in these articles caused me to begin to question the message promulgated by the American Cancer Society and the mainstream media.
When I went in for my annual exam at forty, my nurse practitioner urged me to get a mammogram and I declined, handing her copies of the articles I’d read. When I went back at forty-one, she hadn’t read the articles, and even more strongly urged me in for a baseline. So I acquiesced. Cancer is scary, and when your healthcare provider urges you to get screened, well, it’s hard to say no.
It was already in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about mammograms. It bothered me that women were being sold a bill of goods that didn’t add up. And I think I felt like I would have more credibility and be more confident declining mammograms if I wrote an in-depth exposé of them; I had certainly not expected that a routine, baseline mammogram would lead to a follow-up and all the attendant anxiety. But after that experience, the pull to write the essay became even more urgent. I wrote it as a personal essay because I think a personal thread is critical for making a research-dense piece absorbable by readers.
Tell us about the research and discovery process involved with this piece. Was it difficult to find sources willing to denounce the breast cancer awareness movement?
I started out researching an article about mammograms, and in the process I uncovered all of this other mind-blowing information about Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the pink ribbon campaign. I even created a file called “Hypocrisy, Doublespeak, and Conflicts of Interest.” Later, that file got subdivided into three separate files: “Monsanto,” “American Cancer Society,” and “Pinkwashing.”
The accumulated articles I read for the piece are stacked about a foot high. My problem wasn’t finding sources; my problem was that there was too much shocking information to fit into one essay. Because of that, I chose not to reach out for interviews, but I know I wouldn’t have had any trouble finding willing interviewees.
And here, I think it’s important for me to say that I am not a breast cancer survivor, and I know that many who have participated in breast cancer awareness walks have found great healing and camaraderie in the experience. At this juncture, however, I would prefer it if women did less walking and more marching. There is also great camaraderie and healing in working together to advocate for change.
The subtitle of your story is “The Mammogram Myth and the Pinkwashing of America.” Where does the term “pinkwashing” come from? Is it a brand-new word, or does it have a history?
One evening, as my mate, Frank, and I walked our dog at the beach, I couldn’t help but pour out to him all of this jaw-dropping information I was uncovering. When I told Frank that Breast Cancer Awareness Month was launched by a pharmaceutical company that also sold carcinogenic pesticides on the side, and that pink-ribbon marketing is completely unregulated, he said, “That’s like greenwashing, but with pink. It’s pinkwashing.” Which I thought was brilliant. When we got home, I rushed to my computer to find out if anyone else was using the term. And in fact, someone was. Breast Cancer Action coined the term in 2002. They are a great source for people looking to do more, as is the Breast Cancer Fund.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each of us—even the healthiest among us—has what you call “stealth toxicants” lurking in our bodies. What are “stealth toxicants” and where do they come from?
We are inundated by chemicals every day. Body burden studies show that even those of us who do our best to avoid chemicals carry a host of toxicants in our bodies. Take Russell Libby, for example. An organic farmer and, until his death in 2012, the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), he was surprised, I’m sure, when a body burden test indicated that in addition to many other toxicants, he carried an exceptionally high load of PBDE flame retardants—which are hormone disruptors. Libby did not shy away from discussing the connections between his cancer and the toxicants in his body.
I call such chemicals “stealth toxicants,” because it takes so long for cancer and other health problems to manifest that rarely are we able to connect the disease back to the source. And these toxicants are everywhere. They’re in our food and its packaging. They’re in our cleaning products and cosmetics. They’re in air fresheners, furniture, and fresh paint. And they’re almost completely unregulated.
If the breast cancer awareness movement is to be treated with suspicion, where do the real solutions lie? Is there any kind of legislation people can get behind that might turn things around?
Look, breast cancer is scary. It’s the second leading cause of cancer in women. Women want something they can do so they don’t feel helpless—so they get a mammogram. But mammograms are an illusory solution to the problem of breast cancer; unfortunately, the problem requires more from us. We need to fight for the legislation and research that will help prevent cancer in the first place.
The pink ribbon campaign is a corporate-funded shell game that uses fear-mongering to sell medical services, pharmaceuticals, and feel-good consumerism, distracting us from the environmental causes of cancer (including the toxicants in the products we use every day). First and foremost, we need to get political. The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted way back in 1976, and is largely ineffective. Environmental groups have been fighting for updated legislation for a long time; a bill was shot down last year, but this year there is a new one before Congress. It’s called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013, and according to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 450 organizations, this bill is a step in the right direction—but it needs to be strengthened in some critical areas. People can read about it here, and there’s even a link to contact their senators. On a personal level, there are things women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer. I share some ideas in the online sidebar to the article.
When I turned forty, my relationship to my breasts changed. It felt like they were suddenly transformed into two ticking time bombs. What a terrible transformation that was! I like what Dr. Christiane Northrup says in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. She says the message we should be giving our breasts is “Girls, you’re safe with me!”