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The Push-Pull Relationship To The Chemicals In Our Lives

A two-time cancer survivor celebrates and worries about the chemicals in her life.
PUBLISHED January 28, 2020
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,or

When I was first diagnosed, I wondered what I had done to somehow "step in it" and get cancer. What had I done differently than the other people around me? Was it some processed food that I ate? Was it because I colored my hair? In a way, it was a bit of relief to discover, eight years later, that I had the PALB2 genetic mutation for breast cancer. I finally had a reason, a genetic one, that did not have anything to do with my choices.

However, even though that mutation increases cancer risk, it is not a one hundred percent guarantee that a person who has it will get cancer. I am puzzled and torn in my own thoughts. Do you worry too? Do I worry too much or not enough about the chemicals in my life?

Chemicals surround us. Risk assessment helps us understand more. Some chemicals keep harmful bacteria from growing. Some of them keep food and skin products from going bad too quickly. Some help us clean. Some are added to things as inexpensive alternatives to more expensive natural ingredients. I will always wonder if chemicals were or were not factors in my two cancer diagnoses. For a long time, I wondered if chemicals caused or contributed to my two cancer diagnoses while at the same time, I was grateful that chemicals were there to provide chemotherapy, help prevent cancer's return, and to help me cope with anxiety.

How can a cancer survivor be prudent about chemicals without making themselves crazy(er)? This is what I wonder. Here are my thoughts.

Read labels.

I stand in the grocery store and home supplies store constantly reading labels. When it comes to food, fewer ingredients often mean fewer chemicals. I discovered a single-ingredient sour cream (Daisy brand) amid others with many ingredients. When it comes to household products, is the same true? I have learned that "natural" can sometimes be a vague term rather than a meaningful one. I try to find unscented hypoallergenic products for doing laundry and for my makeup.

Research your medications.

When I get a new prescription, I talk to my pharmacist. When I get home, I read the fine print and look up interactions and possible side effects online. I recently got a huge rash an hour after trying a new prescription. I called the doctor right away as instructed in the fine print.

Buy organic?

First, do the research and see if buying organic makes sense for you. Buying organic food is often more expensive. I try to make good choices about when to spend the extra money to buy organic. I also read articles about topical products too, sometimes I switch and sometimes, well, I want what I want. I never have cleaned out my cupboards and drawers or made a full switch.

Cancer survivors are probably on a continuum on this issue of chemicals in our lives. We try to make the best decisions we can to "feel safe" and to sleep at night. I will probably continue to color my hair but is that "safe?” I don't know.

Sometimes I shake my head at myself when I am unwilling to spend the few extra dollars for organic. Most of us work with a limited budget, but what price would we pay to prevent our cancer from returning? I drink coffee, which is high in antioxidants, and I try to find a limited-ingredient soy or nut milk to put in my coffee. I drink coffee every day, and I have learned that it probably makes the most sense to spend my food dollars towards the things I drink or eat most regularly.

What do you do to manage the chemicals in your life?

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