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FEATURE | fall 2006

The Geography of Breast Cancer
Why are there "hot spots" of the disease in the United States? A dogged group of survivors, scientists and mapmakers are determined to find out

Living on the wild, craggy elbow of Cape Cod, Jane Chase feels lucky to have spent 50 years in a house facing Nantucket Sound. "We love it here," she says, looking out over a marsh at a spectacular sunset on Red River Beach, where the water gleams with kayakers, sailors and fishermen.
It wasn't until a few years ago, when a community effort was launched to understand the strangely high rate of breast cancer on Cape Cod, that the mother of six considered her South Harwich, Mass., home to be anything other than a bucolic haven.

The two-time breast cancer survivor might never have linked her disease to the environment had she not joined a local cancer group and later enlisted in a household health study. She then learned that her classic colonial garrison house harbored lurking toxins, and that her idyllic neighborhood had likely been aerially sprayed with now-banned organochlorine pesticides such as DDT.

News Alert: The Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act (BCERA) would authorize $30 million a year from 2007-2012 to study environmental factors implicated in the development of breast cancer.  Unfortunately, the federal legislation has been held up in Congress due to the objections of one Senator (Tom Coburn, R-OK). For more information and to find out what you can do to help move the legislation forward, contact the National Breast Cancer Coalition (800-622-2838 x579) or visit http://www.lesspinkmoreresearch.org/write/

Cape Cod, with a breast cancer rate 20 percent higher than the rest of Massachusetts, is just one of a several places around the United States with the dubious distinction of being a "hot spot" on our nation's increasingly lit-up breast cancer map. It's joined by Long Island, Marin County and San Francisco-places where a controversy has brewed for years-and newly emerging areas such as the Puget Sound in Washington state and Brownsville, Texas.

The reasons for variable rates of the disease are not well understood. But what is clear is that the discovery of hot spots both in the United States and around the world have sparked a new breast-cancer environmental movement, with strong local advocacy groups as well as new national groups. To read the rest of the article, pick up a copy of Ms. at your newsstand, or join the Ms. community and have Ms. delivered to your door.

Francesca Lyman is the author of MSNBC's award-winning "Your Environment" column and has written two books, The Greenhouse Trap (Beacon Press, 1990) and Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest: Exploring the Heart of Central Africa (Workman Publishing, 1998).