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A Survivor’s Story: Did Modern Life Give Me Breast Cancer?

Posted Jun 04 2012 4:23pm
Posted in: Health
This blog post originally appeared on  They have graciously allowed us to post part of the article.  The remainder...

This blog post originally appeared on .  They have graciously allowed us to post part of the article.  The remainder can be found at the link at the bottom.

When I was nine months pregnant, my midwife found a lump in my breast. She thought it was a clogged milk duct, but she suggested I consult a doctor just to be certain. I wasn’t concerned. I was a healthy 32 year old who exercised regularly, ate organic muesli every morning, and took my prenatal vitamins without fail. When the doctor wanted to perform a biopsy, I reminded myself that grandmothers got breast cancer, not young women pregnant with their first baby. I wasn’t even alarmed when the doctor saw the lump on an ultrasound machine and said, “You might want to bring your husband when you come back for the biopsy results.”

A week later, I returned with my husband and learned I had breast cancer. Nothing had prepared me for this diagnosis. No one in my family had breast cancer. No one I knew under 40 had breast cancer. When I finally caught my breath, I asked the question every cancer patient wants to know: why me?

My doctor didn’t have an answer, but as Florence Williams describes in her new book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History ( reviewed in the Summer 2012 issue of OnEarth ), scientists are shedding new light on what may be causing the disease and what they’re finding is scary for everyone who lives in our modern world.

They can’t work fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. The incidence of breast cancer is on the rise. Women born in the 1960s are twice as likely to get breast cancer as their grandmothers. Each year one million women get diagnosed with the disease, and researchers expect the number to grow 20 percent by 2020. Only about 10 percent of cases are thought to be due to hereditary risk, Williams writes. Lifestyle choices such as delayed childbirth play a role, but exposure to toxic chemicals does as well. In a groundbreaking report released in 2010, the  President’s Cancer Panel said that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.”

Williams views the spike in breast cancer as a warning sign. Breasts “are a particularly fine mirror of our industrial lives. They accumulate more toxins than other organs and process them differently,” she writes. They reveal something about the hazards of modern life, and we should pay attention.

The rest of the article can be found here .

Emily Cousins is a writer and editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 32 and nine-months pregnant with her first child. She is currently writing a book about what it's like for young survivors once cancer treatment is over-when the radiation burns have healed and the hair has started to come back, but everything else is completely out of whack. After almost a decade living in New York City, Cousins now resides in Northern Arizona with her husband, son, and the daughter she was lucky to have post chemo.
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