Chemicals: Fair Or Foul?


Breast cancer survivor shares her dance on the risk continuum of the chemicals in our lives.

For a long time, I wondered if chemicals caused or contributed to my two cancer diagnoses. I didn't know. Now I have recently found out I am positive for the PALB2 genetic mutation. I remember wanting to know why I got cancer when I was first diagnosed. The genetic counselor told me that the PALB2 probably had a lot to do with getting breast cancer so young — I was in my mid 40s. Genetics, environment or possibly a combination of the two contributed to my cancers.

I had chemotherapy and radiation followed by anastrozole for five years. Now it seems a little late to be cautious about chemicals — chemicals called medications as well as chemicals in food, hair products, make-up, lotions and more. Chemicals are everywhere. I must acknowledge that chemotherapy and other drugs helped to save my life, and chemicals and surgery will get me through my prophylactic double mastectomy with reconstruction.

What is overly cautious in our modern world, and what isn't cautious enough for a two-time cancer survivor? I don't know. Do you struggle with this? How do you cope? The older I get, the more I realize everything is on a continuum. I strive for balance and for moderation.

When I can, I buy products without added dyes, scents, or preservatives. That is,when I decide that doing so doesn't “cost” too much. What does that even mean anyway? When do I pay a few extra dollars in the hope of not getting cancer (again) and when do I "cheap out" and keep hope? There is so much that we don't know for sure. Do I worry too much? Or, not enough? I try to get comfortable with my sliding scale and my dance back and forth on it.

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

I no longer buy the reduced-fat sour cream I enjoyed because the real stuff has so many fewer ingredients. In fact, there is only one: cultured sour cream. I still ponder the food documentary called "Fed Up" that showed that when the fat is taken out of foods, people don't care for the flavor unless manufacturers replace the fat with some form of sugar. Yikes. Too much sugar isn't good for my weight loss efforts any more than too much fat. When I read labels of fat-free calorie-free salad dressings, there is a long ingredient list of chemicals! My instinct says I would be better off with vinegar, oil and herbs.

I continue to drink coffee. A long time ago, I confessed to my oncology nutritionist that I put a couple tablespoons of half and half in my coffee every morning. Her response was "well, at least the half and half is real." She also said most Americans eat so poorly that most of their antioxidants actually come from their coffee consumption because coffee is high in antioxidants. I now try to substitute nut milks for my half and half if the ingredient list is short.

We all want answers, and we all want to feel safe. I would guess that cancer survivors are on a continuum when it comes to their degree of concern about chemicals after cancer. There also may be a continuum when it comes to how sensitive each of us is to each of the chemicals out there. It appears genetic research will provide more and more answers, too.

I try to keep some perspective. I remind myself that the best any of us can do is make the best choices we can in the current moment. Caution is wise but excessive worry is futile. Where are you on the continuum?

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