Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Pilgrim Nuke and the Cancer Industry

by Jeanmarie Marshall, Women's Community Cancer Project

The following is the text of a speech to the Conference on Ionizing Radiation and Breast Cancer, in Austin, Texas, February 1994, sponsored by the Foundation for a Compassionate Society of Austin.

I'm a writer; I'm 35 years old; and I'm a woman with cancer. First I'm going to talk briefly about my personal experience with cancer and then I want to talk a little bit about the politics of cancer. In 1988 I was diagnosed with a rare tumor in my neck. I was 29 years old. I was in my first semester of college. I underwent surgery, radiation therapy, and I was also in a halo neck-brace for four and a half months, which very much disabled me. It made it so I couldn't work; I had no income and I had to go on welfare.

A couple years after the diagnosis, I was doing very well, and I read about a study that had been done by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and they were looking at cancer rates around the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I grew up not too far from the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, on the south shore, in a town called Sictuate. The study found unusually high rates of certain types of cancer in five towns downwind from Plymouth, from the Pilgrim plant. And one of those towns was Sictuate, where I grew up. So I couldn't help but think about that. And think about my diagnosis.

The(re was) an investigation and (it was) found that when Pilgrim first went on line in the early to mid-seventies, Boston-Edison was having a lot of problems with the operation of the plant...(There was) documentation between Boston-Edison and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) about the problems and they found that unusually high levels of radiation were being released into the environment. Basically the people on the south shore just feel like they were guinea pigs for Boston-Edison.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with another tumor in my lower back, the same kind of tumor. It was not a metastasis, it was a new primary tumor. The doctors were quite baffled by this because in the medical literature they had looked it up and they had never found any information on anyone who had had this kind of tumor in two different places. Nowhere. It was already rare to begin with. So I underwent three surgeries in a three month period and then in November I started radiation treatments. That was my second round of radiation treatments. I started radiation on November 15, that was a Monday. And the Friday before my treatments were beginning I found out that my private health insurance company decided that I was no longer insured.

My health insurance was canceled. That Friday afternoon I went into the hospital for my physical therapy appointment—I had been getting physical therapy since my last major surgery in September. I was getting occupational therapy, too, and I told them what was happening with the insurance company, and they sent me home that day without physical therapy. They said, in a nice way, "Come back when you have health insurance." So I was pretty upset about all this.

I started my radiation treatments that Monday at Massachusetts General Hospital. I didn't tell them that my health insurance was canceled. I didn't want them to send me home, too. I knew I needed that radiation treatment. So I went into my treatments every day with the knowledge of not having health insurance. For nine weeks I had my treatments. I finished the treatments a month ago. I'm really glad to be here today. I'm feeling pretty good.

And that makes me want to lead into why I'm here today. I want to talk about the work of the Women's Community Cancer Project and why cancer is a political issue. The Women's Community Cancer Project is a grassroots organization created in 1989 to make changes in the current medical, social, and political approaches to cancer, particularly as they affect women. We came together as women with cancer because we were dissatisfied with the approaches of the traditional cancer establishment in this country. And when I say cancer establishment, I mean the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Health, the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association, and a number of research and care institutions across the country that specialize in cancer.

We do not accept the fact that thousands of us must die quietly of cancer every year. We do not accept the fact that 25% of white women and 40% of Black women diagnosed with breast cancer will be dead within five years. We do not accept the fact that breast cancer is the leading cause of death among women ages 40-55. And...we do not accept the fact that a breast cancer diagnosis on average takes 20 years from a woman's life.

"For those for whom cancer is already a hidden or visible presence, efforts to find cures must of course continue. But for those not yet touched by the disease and certainly for the generations yet unborn, prevention is the imperative need."

In 1962 Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring sounded the alarm about the link between pesticides and cancer. In her chapter titled "One in Four," Carson wrote about one in four people being diagnosed with cancer. Today those figures have changed. One out of three people in the United States will get some form of cancer in their lifetime, and 1 out of 4 will die from it. The war on cancer has been a losing battle. Cancer research has focused almost exclusively on diagnosis and treatment. Clearly, this approach has not worked. We are bombarded with messages from the cancer establishment and the cancer industry about mammography and early detection. Mammography is neither prevention or cure, and early detection is too late.

The Women's Community Cancer Project is committed to educating the public about the cancer establishment's inadequate response to the cancer epidemic. Our "Women's Cancer Agenda," a 10-point document which addresses education, research, public policy, and political action as it pertains to women and cancer, has been endorsed by over 50 women's, environmental, and health care organizations.

And I'd like to submit this for the record. It has also been published in magazines and journals across the US and presented as testimony before the President's Cancer Panel in Washington DC. The Women's Community Cancer Project is also committed to educating the public about the environmental links to cancer. We are outraged at the cancer establishment's inaction on this issue. The most conspicuous silence of all has been from the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society claims to be leading the fight against cancer. Yet they have consistently remained silent on environmental links to breast cancer and other cancers, such as DDT and other pesticides, PCB's, low-level radiation exposure and electromagnetic fields.

The American Cancer Society claims to be leading the fight against cancer. Yet they have consistently remained silent on environmental links to breast cancer and other cancers...

Last summer our group, along with Greenpeace Boston and the Women's Action Coalition had a little demonstration in Boston at the American Cancer Society's national breast cancer conference protesting their silence on the environmental links to cancer. In the conference agenda we observed that there was not one mention about breast cancer prevention or environmental toxins. We feel that discussion, research, and public education on the causes of breast cancer should be part of a national breast cancer agenda, and included in a national conference on breast cancer.

Last week a study published by Dr. Devra Lee Davis in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed evidence that baby boomers born between 1948 and 1957 have a significantly higher risk of getting cancer today than members of their grandparent s' generation at a similar age.... One possible cause, Dr. Davis and her co-authors speculated, is the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in the environment. What was the American Cancer Society's response to this report? Dr. Clark Keith, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society said that, "the report does not make a strong case for environmentally-caused cancers." He attributed the rise in some cancer rates to early detection.

We cannot sit back and allow the National Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute to perpetuate the myth that cancer is caused by lifestyle, diet, and heredity and that early detection is the answer. Prevention is the answer. We believe that grassroots pressure is essential in order to reverse the contamination and pollution that is killing us. The Women's Community Cancer Project is proud to have participated in the meeting this past weekend with the Women's Environment and Development Organization, Greenpeace, and other activist groups, and to be part of this national campaign, launching "Women, Cancer, and the Environment." Though we start with breast cancer, we will not stop at that in building an effective national cancer prevention movement.

In closing I want to read a couple of sentences from Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring:

For those for whom cancer is already a hidden or visible presence, efforts to find cures must of course continue. But for those not yet touched by the disease and certainly for the generations yet unborn, prevention is the imperative need.

Thirty-two years later, now we know that Rachel Carson was right.

One year after this speech, at the age of 36, Jeanmarie Marshall became another cancer mortality statistic.

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