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“After a cancer diagnosis you look back and think, ‘that’s the day my life changed,’” said Karen Joy Miller, founder of Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition (HBCAC), who was diagnosed in 1987. As she pursued treatment, Karen felt she needed to know why she had breast cancer. What caused it? Could it have been avoided?
An outgoing mom and admitted “gym rat,” Karen posted ads in her gym’s locker room and her local Pennysaver to see if others were interested in why people develop breast cancer.
“Three women contacted me immediately,” said Karen, “What struck me was that these women did not have breast cancer, yet they were as interested to know about what causes breast cancer as I was.”
More women reached out and, in 1992, Karen established the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the eradication of breast cancer through education, awareness and policy change. Soon thousands of people from all over Long Island were contacting Karen to join and/or offer support.
“One of the first things we did was plugged the word ‘ACTION’ into our name, because our mission is to push the envelope as far as we can, understanding what causes breast cancer with a focus on primary prevention.
An early HBCAC initiative, Breast Cancer Prevalence Survey Mapping Project geographically mapped incidences of breast cancer in Huntington Township. HBCAC mailed a confidential survey to 68,000 homes asking all women ages 25+ whether or not they were diagnosed with breast cancer to respond to the survey. More than 30,000+ women replied; many wrote notes in the margins, eager to share their experiences.
That mapping project took a decade to complete and raised awareness about the epidemic and interest in breast cancer and toxic exposures. That led to a New York State Mapping which revealed from 2000-2004, while the national breast cancer incidence rate was 127.8 per 1,000 women, Suffolk County showed an incidence rate of 142.7; Nassau’s was 138.7. Karen went on to testify before Congress with other advocates which led to the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project (LIBCSP), a federally mandated study.
The Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project heightened the interest in what would be the cause-and-effect relationship between environmental factors and breast cancer. “The public wanted to know, Karen said, what toxic materials in our environment not only increase our risk of disease and cancer, they increase our children’s risk before they’re even born.”
“This risk may have been set up generations before, or in the mother’s womb during prenatal development,” said Karen, who noted that environmental toxins can start a cascade of genetic and biological changes that can result in any number of diseases: asthma, autism, diabetes, cancer.
Endocrine disruptors such as BPA (Bisphenol A), PBDEs, Phthalates, Parabens, are major culprits. Found in household items such as flame-retardant clothing, fabrics and mattresses, the lids of tin cans and strained baby food, the lining of bottled baby formula, personal care products and more, these endocrine disruptors mimic estrogen, and when ingested, absorbed through the skin or breathed in may change the delicate balance of hormones that regulate our bodies. This can trigger a chain of events that can eventually result in asthma, autism, even cancer. Studies have shown that BPA and many of these compounds cross the placenta, reaching babies still developing in the womb.
There are lots of little things we can do every day to protect ourselves and our families. Karen suggests picking just one to start with, then another when we’re ready:
•Go green with gardening and lawn care. Pesticides contain endocrine disrupting chemicals, so try organic products when tending to your lawn.
•Leave shoes at the front door so you don’t track in harmful pesticides and other chemicals, transferring them to your rugs or kicking them up into the air.
•Clean swing sets and outdoor toys after mosquito spraying.
•Change clothes after playing outside. And remember: chemicals sprayed onto trees can hang around for hours after application, falling off of leaves and onto your clothes.
•Optimally avoid handling cash register receipts; they contain BPA which gets absorbed through the skin. Let cashier know of potential danger.
•Read labels and check with sites such as www.preventionisthecure.org, www.ewg.org, www.safecosmetics.org to make sure the products you use are least toxic.
HBCAC welcomes your help. Come to HBCAC’s offices and stuff envelopes, help with office work or outreach. Science and grant writers are needed. Support HBCAC with donations so they can continue to spread the word about prevention.
Creative thinkers are also welcome. “Our un-pesticide pink lawn flag campaign was a brilliant idea from one of our volunteers,” said Karen, referring to lawn flags branded with the slogan ‘I Am Fed Naturally!’ Today this campaign reaches 30,000 homes.
A Single Person Can Make a Difference
“I was an ordinary member of my community – a wife, a mother, a grandmother -- until one day I wanted to know more about breast cancer,” said Karen. “Find what you believe in, get involved. A single person can make a difference!”