Breast Cancer Action was the first breast cancer organization to draw the link between breast cancer and environmental pollution. It was an early member of the Toxic Links Coalition, which organized an annual Cancer Industry Tour to call out the Bay Area’s most egregious toxic polluters, as well as the American Cancer Society. This article, written by Mary Ann Swissier and published on November 7, 1998, in The Independent, describes the fifth annual Cancer Industry Tour, held in October to protest Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

Annual tour argues toxins create cancers – Calls annual awareness month bogus

San Franciscans take to the streets for many reasons but none so unique as the annual Cancer Industry Tour, held each October for the last five years, in protest of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Last week’s tour, held on the sidewalks and streets of the Financial District, was one of the largest, noisiest, and most colorful ever, according to Bradley Angel, a Haight Ashbury resident and a member of the Toxic Links Coalition, which organizes the annual event.

This year’s tour, which drew more than 150 participants, was also a time to recognize a small but significant inroads made by the coalition, to get its point across to the public and businesses, he said, about all kinds of cancer, not just breast cancer.  The EPA and Pacific Gas & Electric, he said, have both responded to pressure from activists.

Subtitled, “Stop cancer where it starts,” the tour is an only-in-San Francisco event, featuring sign-camping, puppet-holding attendees who resemble a street-theater group more than a formal tour.  It usually draws about 100 Toxic Links Coalition members, who rally outside of headquarters of companies they say are causing cancer by indiscriminately manufacturing or improperly dumping toxic products.

Specific issues of concern to the group over the past five years have included several toxic-dumping grounds in Bayview-Hunters Point, the Midway Village housing development in Daly City, incinerators in West Oakland and Richmond, and Ward Valley, California, a proposed site for a nuclear waste dump.

Noe Valley resident and breast cancer survivor Barbara Brenner told the crowd assembled in front of Chevron Corporation’s Market Street headquarters that the primary message behind National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – that annual mammograms save lives – is misleading.  “Mammograms and better drugs won’t stop cancer rates from rising, but stopping these companies from dumping millions of tons of cancer-causing chemicals into the air and water might,” said Brenner, executive director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action.

Corporate sponsorship

Brenner said the founder and current sponsor of NBCAM, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, the largest maker of breast cancer drugs in the world, also makes cancer-causing pesticides.  And it has final word on the awareness month promotional materials – which is why, said Brenner, “the words ‘carcinogenic’ or ‘environment’ are never once mentioned.”      

The American Cancer Society’s Montgomery Street office is also targeted annually, partly because ‘of its zealous promotion of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, according to Judy Brady, Glen Park resident and member of the Toxic Links Coalition.

Brady, a breast cancer survivor, a prime mover behind the annual tour, and author of the 1991 book 1 in 3: Women With Cancer Confront an Epidemic, told the crowd, “Why are we here?  These folks don’t have smoke stacks, and as far as we know, they aren’t making nuclear weapons.”

“But the American Cancer Society has never said a word” about the health effects of toxic pollutants, she said.

American Cancer Society spokeswoman Amy Weitz told The Independent that her organization found the annual protest “unfortunate”.  Weitz pointed to the ACS grants, totaling $2.8 million for this year alone, intended for research into determining if a polluted environment poses any harm to the health of individuals.

Brady said, in a separate interview, that the dangers of toxin exposure to human beings had already been researched over the last 30 years, beginning with biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, and that the priority should be placed on getting rid of toxins.

Weitz emphasized that through a massive research effort conducted by the American Cancer Society, scientists had proven that two-thirds of all cancers could be prevented in ways unrelated to environmental cleanup – one-third by eliminating cigarette smoking and one-third by improving diet and increasing exercise.

Also, the ACS funded one of the largest research projects on cancer, the Cancer Prevention Study, a one-million person, 16-year project that is tracking the participants’ health by measuring their food, drink, and drug intake as well as the impact of their lifestyle.

Body of evidence

Brady says she believes that her own cancer was environmentally caused, but she cautioned, “It’s a multi-factorial question.  And as soon as you begin pointing to one thing, you simplify the issue and, therefore, misrepresent it.”

Downtown resident Patricia Castillo, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, said that exposure to pesticides caused her to become sick.  According to Castillo, “I grew up in Lodi, a farming community, and I played in irrigation ditches (into which pesticides seeped).”

Lori Leigh Gieleghem, a Financial District law firm employee, said that her breast cancer could have developed through a combination of taking birth control pills and being exposed to toxic wastes during annual childhood vacations to the Salton Sea.

She added, “I don’t think it’s anything anyone knowingly exposed me to; it’s just from being around toxins, which is part of the late 20th century living.”