Adena Cohen-Bearak wishes people would get a little mad about cancer.
A breast cancer survivor, Cohen-Bearak said she doesn’t get inspired by pink ribbons or major efforts to find a cure. While she admits that a cure would be great, this Needham resident is more interested in why so many people are diagnosed with cancer to begin with.
Cohen-Bearak has joined others asking exactly that question as a board member for theMassachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, an organization that raises awareness of the environmental causes of cancer. This Saturday, Aug. 20, the coalition will holds its semi-annual “Against the Tide” event—a combination swim, kayak, walk and run that raises funds for the small, 20-year-old nonprofit.
Needham Patch sat down with Cohen-Bearak recently to talk about the upcoming event, her work with the MBCC and her experience as a cancer survivor.
What is your cancer story? My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 47, and then 23 years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 47. I remember it very well; she called me up and said, ‘I have breast cancer. I’m having a mastectomy tomorrow.’ And that’s all they did. There was no medication; there was no chemo or radiation. That was it, and luckily she’s never had a recurrence. My experience was somewhat different than my mother, because treatment has improved. So instead of a mastectomy, I had a lumpectomy. And then I had radiation of the breast and now I’m on Tamoxifen, which is an anti-hormone; it kind of blocks the estrogen, because it’s an estrogen-fed tumor. But I didn’t have to have chemo, and I didn’t have to have reconstruction.
How did you get interested in the environmental causes of cancer? I got tested for the gene, and we don’t have it, so I wondered why. No one really talks about the why. Everyone talks about the treatments, the cure, the pink ribbon. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the why. And really the only thing that we have in common, if it’s not genetic, is where we were. I grew up in Newton. My mom didn’t grow up in Newton, but we shared a common environment, so was there some chemical in the environment—either in the earth or in the water or some chemical that was being used in the neighborhood? No one really knows. But there is a higher incidence of cancer in Newton. I had a friend I grew up with in Newton who ended up dying of breast cancer at 42. So in my mind, there was something going on.
Have groups like the MBCC identified any definite causes of breast cancer? It’s very hard to say, 'The reason she got breast cancer is because of X.’ There are different ways of doing research—you can go to people who have breast cancer and go backwards and see what exposures they have. You could follow a group of people and see if they develop it, but that would take years. You can go to animal models, but the problem with rats and mice is, you can give them chemicals and maybe they develop breast cancer, but is that completely analogous to people? No, it’s not. So it’s complicated. It’s hard to tease out the exact cause.
One thing the MBCC did when it first started is it started a research group that’s called the Silent Spring Institute [based in Newton]. They are separate now, but we still work together. They have done some really amazing research that is bringing much more evidence to these sorts of connections.
There was also a really interesting report that came out recently by the President’s Cancer Panel. It comes out every year. And the most recent one was about the environment and breast cancer. They said the whole burden of environmental links to cancer has been under-estimated.
What is the MBCC’s role? I joined the board of the MBCC about a year ago. It’s a very small nonprofit with a very small budget and staff but they’re very dedicated. They do educational presentations to help people understand these connections [between breast cancer and the environment]. One of the things that we’re working on is trying to get legislation that will force the companies that use chemicals to test them before they put them out into the world. Right now, you can put a chemical out into the world until someone gets sick. But this would put the burden of proof on them to prove it was safe. That’s not how it is right now.
In public health, there’s something called the ‘precautionary principle,’ and that means if there’s enough evidence that something seems dangerous, let’s not do it. We feel that there’s enough evidence that some of these chemicals are causing cancer.
Is there something specific a person can do to avoid cancer-causing chemicals? Some people are really into shopping their away out of this—like you avoid canned food and certain types of plastics, you don’t reheat things in plastic in the microwave, you avoid air fresheners that have certain chemicals and eat organic as much as possible. There are some things you can do, but you don’t know what other exposures you have in your environment. For example, we don’t use pesticides on our lawn anymore, but all our neighbors do. It’s not like it stays in their yard; it drifts over. Or if there’s something in the water. Or even the flame-resistant materials in couches—that is a chemical that can be carcinogenic—or the stuff in rugs. You can make yourself crazy.
When the MBCC gives presentations, they will talk about some steps you can take. I guess that’s just to help reduce people’s fear, because it is big and it feels very scary.
So what is the end game—what is the MBCC striving toward? Everyone can make personal changes but there are still going to be chemicals in the world that are cancer-causing, and it’s not enough to just change your own personal environment and feel like you’re living in this little protective bubble. It’s really about getting people more politicized and to get them to say, ‘No, we’re no going to accept this.’ Hopefully we won’t have to do it one chemical at a time.
If some of these laws are passed, it will force the companies to do better testing, to find alternatives—there probably are alternatives, it’s just, why would they find them if they didn’t need to? In Europe, there are more stringent regulations, so companies have figured out ways to make cosmetics without some of these chemicals. So it can be done.
What would you personally like to see happen? I kind of wish people would get a little more angry. When you get sick, you’re so grateful that people are helping you and you feel so terrible anyway, so you don’t have a lot of fight. Then when you come out of it, you realize, I didn’t have to get this. This is not right. I have a 42-year-old friend who lost her life to cancer. I have a cousin who lost her life when she was in her 40s. There is someone in my synagogue whose daughter was 22 years old and she had breast cancer. That’s not right. And certainly if it’s caused by things that can be prevented, we should be able to do something about it.
I don’t really consider myself cancer-free. I don’t think I have cancer right now, but I’m not free because I’m going to be thinking about it for the rest of my life. There’s always that worry in the back of your mind. I go every six months for a checkup, and I’m not as anxious as I was before, but every time you go, you worry. Are they going to find something? Is it coming back?
Adena Cohen-Bearak will be walking in the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition’s Against the Tide event on Saturday, Aug. 20 in Brewster. Help support the MBCC’s cause by donating through her page or sign up at mbcc.org to participate in up to three of the day’s events—a one-mile competitive swim, one-mile recreational swim, two-mile kayak race, three-mile walk or 5K fun run. Participants are asked to raise a minimum of $175 each.