Breland: Prevention Over Detection

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Representing activists dissatisfied with "cancer awareness" campaigns that fail to address the root causes of the disease, a Berkeley City Council member proposed a resolution yesterday to establish October as "Stop Cancer Where It Starts" month.

The resolution, scheduled for council review at the next meeting Oct. 10, calls for the city to focus on awareness of preventive measures for cancer, as opposed to the early detection themes pushed by most groups during National Cancer Awareness Month, said Calvin Fong, assistant to Councilmember Margaret Breland, who sponsored the resolution. Breland recently announced she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Representatives from Breast Cancer Action, the Women's Cancer Resource Center and Toxic Links Coalition - Bay Area groups that collaborated with council members on the item - spoke at a press conference yesterday in front of the City Council chambers. Attendees then followed Fong to the city clerk's office to show their support as he turned in the resolution on Breland's behalf.

The proposed resolution calls on the city to reduce or eliminate toxins in the environment that may contribute to cancer risk by, for example, banning the use of PVC plastic, said Karen Sushe, a representative of Communities For a Better Environment.

PVC plastic is a chlorinated product, meaning that its manufacture releases dioxin, a dangerous chemical that new research indicates is a carcinogen and may also cause health risks such as neurological problems, diabetes and low sperm count, Sushe said. The proposed resolution seeks to raise awareness of alternative products and methods for such potentially lethal substances.

Breland, who worked as a licensed vocational nurse before joining the council, has long been interested in the relationship between environmental pollution and cancer, Fong said.

Most breast cancer awareness campaigns focus on early detection, which is not a solution to the actual problem, said Diane de Lara, a representative of Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based group.

"Detection is not preventing (anything), it's detecting what's already there," she said.

The campaigns often advertise that in most cases of early breast cancer detection, the disease is completely curable, a misleading statement, since the definition of a cancer survivor is someone who has lived for at least five years after their diagnosis, de Lara said. Cancer can never be completely cured, and "survivors" are always at risk of recurrences, she said.

Councilmember Polly Armstrong, who has been recovering from breast cancer for seven years and lost her mother to the disease, said that many people are now concentrating on the environmental causes of cancer.

"It's a horrible, scary disease," she said. "If we can save one extra life (with a resolution), then I'm in favor of it."

But Armstrong warned of getting "sidetracked" and forgetting about the genetic basis for cancer and the importance of early detection.

The prevailing movements for early detection as opposed to prevention are powered by pharmaceutical corporations promoting their treatment products to people who are diagnosed with cancer, de Lara said.

"It's a corporate vehicle," she said. "It diverts attention away from the fact that this is an epidemic. You'll hear a lot about the survivors, but what about the people getting the cancer? (Incidence) is rising."

Oakland and San Francisco city councils are also preparing to review similar resolutions about naming October as "Stop Cancer Where It Starts" month.


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