BY MAGGIE OLSON
I am aware that cancer exists. I am aware that causes of cancer can be genetic or environmental. I am aware that cancer can develop in almost any part of the body. A basic understanding of anatomy means I am aware of many types of cancer.
I lost a family member to cancer. I don’t know anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer, directly or indirectly. If you show a pink ribbon to almost anyone in America, they will be able to tell you what it symbolizes.
So what are cancer awareness events for?
Most of the cancer awareness events I’ve seen are fun, like the recent testicular cancer awareness dodge ball tournament held on campus. These are an excellent opportunity for people whose lives have been touched by cancer.
They can meet others like themselves to talk about their experiences, or to not talk about their experiences at all and just have a good time. But that doesn’t raise awareness about cancer any more than going to a football game raises awareness about sports.
I think we do need to raise awareness about cancer, but we’re raising awareness about the wrong issue.
There is such a focus in our culture on the treatment of cancer that the causes of it are largely overlooked. Sure, we’ve all heard about how terrible smoking is, how terrible second- and even thirdhand smoke are, but the causes of cancer stretch far beyond the tobacco industry.
In the documentary, “Living Downstream,” researcher Sandra Steingraber begins by talking about her family’s battles with cancer. Many in her immediate and extended family, including Steingraber herself, have all had cancer. Then Steingraber says, “The punch line of my story is that I’m adopted.”
Much of the film is dedicated to the impact agriculture has on contributing cancer-causing agents to the environment, including atrazine, a common weed killer.
The European Union banned atrazine a decade ago after reviewing evidence that atrazine can cause cancer. Around the same time the Environmental Protection Agency approved its continued use. Today, atrazine is one of the most widely-used weed killers in the United States.
If you’re an MSUM student, there’s a good chance you grew up in rural Minnesota/North Dakota, where “rural community” is nearly synonymous with “farming community.” Our water supply is not atrazine-proof any more than Steingraber’s. What happened to Steingraber’s family could happen to any of us.
But atrazine is just one chemical. There are carcinogens in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe.
According to Cancer Research UK, there are over 200 types of cancer. Cancer does not exist in isolation. Environmentalism and the fight against cancer are linked.
There needs to be a shift in focus from awareness of cancer to awareness of the environmental causes of cancer.
As new cancers are discovered, the urge to treat and cure the disease outweighs the urge to examine its systemic causes. The battle against cancer continues, but without a more concerted effort into eliminating environmental causes of cancer, it is a war we will all lose.