If "Cancer" Is in the Fine Print, Run the Other Way


There are so many choices on the market to confuse us about healthy living. Let us be thankful that many products come with warning labels to alert us to potential cancer risks, even if they are sometimes so small we overlook them at first glance.

My physical therapist recommended an exercise ball. After we practiced some moves at the clinic, I bought a big blue one to add to an exercise regimen I am developing to address post-treatment pain and mobility issues that many women with breast cancer face. Unfortunately, I grabbed the first ball off the shelf without reading its fine print until I got home.

“Warning!” a small label on the back of the box next to a larger image of a healthy, athletic woman proclaimed. “This product contains one or more chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm, including DEHP, a phthalate chemical.”

I live in Virginia, not California, yet nonetheless dropped the box like a hot potato or plutonium rod, thankful that I had not broken its seal. When would these chemicals start to take effect? As soon as the ball rolled out of the box? At first whiff? And how many chemicals were in there, exactly?

Maybe California has a point. I looked up DEHP, a plasticizer, before conducting research to identify similar products that might be less toxic. This ball had to go. Virginia, California, Idaho, Maine—cancer does not recognize borders, does it? I knew myself well enough to know that I needed an exercise ball that did not add to my worries.

But what should I do with the ball? Burning it in my backyard was out of the question. Donating it to charity seemed wrong. Should I throw it into a landfill? Put it back on the market? I contemplated the moral dilemma of returning a product known to cause cancer. Should I just throw away my money and remove one more carcinogen from the world?

“Reason for returning the product?” a clerk asked when I returned the exercise ball.

“It causes cancer,” I said. “I don’t need to take that risk.”

With those words, I tossed the ball back in the court of the store that sold it and pocketed my money to take to another store, where I bought an exercise ball that would not give me nightmares. I remain glad that the first ball I purchased came with a warning label, even if I almost overlooked it, and that the new ball had a label that listed toxic chemicals it did not contain.

More and more products are coming with warnings or labels. For some people who have already been diagnosed with cancer, these alerts trigger a sort of post-traumatic stress that makes us flip through a lifetime of exposures that may or may not have contributed to flicking the switch of our cancers.

Even before I learned much about genetic factors, I always knew that the women in my family tended to get breast cancer. When it was my mother’s turn, the threat hit hard. I became more diligent about reducing risk factors within my control. I got into arguments with people who used pesticides and herbicides near me. I stopped eating certain foods and ate more of others. I tried to buy “natural” cleaning and personal products.

No matter what we do, it is not enough. Cancer is complicated. Nature and nurture do this big contra-dance, inviting all kinds of partners, from genes to immune systems to second-hand smoke. As careful as I was, something nurtured nature. Disappointed with my failed attempt to outsmart cancer, I rebelliously ate a piece of bacon after getting my diagnosis.

Even if I ate nitrate-filled bacon after years of clean living, I avoided a downward spiral. I would keep on keeping on. I would avoid, among other things, toxic exercise balls. That is because getting cancer does not mean that we should give up. We can remain diligent about exposure to toxins that California and other entities recognize as harmful. Healthy choices at least give us a sense of control.

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