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Chemicals Scare Me, Chemicals Saved Me (From Cancer)

A cancer survivor wonders if chemicals contributed to her breast cancer or melanoma.
PUBLISHED January 22, 2016
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Did chemicals cause or contribute to my two cancer diagnoses? I don’t know. I remember wanting to know why I got cancer when I was diagnosed the first time — the breast cancer. Did I do something wrong? Maybe genetics or the environment contributed to this? Did I use the wrong deodorant or shampoo? Did I eat something harmful? Now, after it is too late to lock the door after those horses have already left the barn, I am cautious about chemicals — chemicals in food, hair products, makeup, lotions and more. Chemicals are everywhere. I also must acknowledge that chemotherapy and other drugs helped to save my life.

Maybe I am too cautious? What is overly cautious in our modern world, and what isn’t cautious enough for a two-time cancer survivor? Again, I don’t know. Do you struggle with this too? How do you cope? For me, the answer is balance and my faith.

I buy products without added dyes or scents or preservatives when I can — when I write "can" I really mean when it doesn’t cost too much. What does that even mean anyway? Do I pay a few extra dollars in the hope of not getting cancer again or do I cheap out and live in hope since we don’t know a lot this yet for sure anyway? Sometimes I think I worry too much. Other times, I probably don’t worry enough. How am I supposed to balance these worries?

Should I keep coloring my hair? Are the dyes potentially harmful to me or not? Is my vanity in wanting to hide all the gray hair that came back after chemotherapy going to kill me ... literally? How do I reconcile my chemical worries with my desire not to look more worn out than I feel?

Is the reduced-fat sour cream I enjoy better for me because it has less fat, or is it harmful because of the extra chemical ingredients and added sugar that is put into the low-fat version? I learned from a documentary called “Fed Up” that when the fat is taken out of foods, people often don’t care for the flavor, so food manufacturers often replace the fat with some form of sugar. Too much sugar isn’t good for my weight loss efforts anymore than the fat. When I read labels, it also looks like these low fat foods have more chemicals, too, in their ingredient lists.I remember my oncology nutritionist’s response to me several years ago when I said that I was continuing to drink coffee and I confessed that I put a couple tablespoons of half and half in my coffee every morning.

She said, “Well, at least the half and half is real, I wouldn’t worry about that in your case.”

Have you ever read the ingredient list of fat-free half and half? It's scary stuff. My nutritionist went on to say that many Americans eat so poorly that most of their antioxidants actually come from their coffee. Who knew? Well, I didn’t back then.

We all want answers. We all want to know what is safe. I guess we all fall on a continuum when it comes to how concerned we are about chemicals after having cancer. There is also probably a different continuum when it comes to how sensitive each of us is to each of the chemicals out there. Genetic research will probably provide more answers as time goes on. Unfortunately, many of us want answers sooner rather than later.

I rely on my faith and try to keep a little perspective. We are born at the moment in history when we are born. I survived a tubal pregnancy because of modern surgery. How many times have we been saved by antibiotics? Now we take them for granted. Maybe what I am trying to convey is that caution is prudent but excessive worry is futile? What do you think? What have you changed since cancer and what have you left the same?
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