May 2003 Archives

The Blight of the Bay

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One out of eight women nationwide will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the highest breast cancer rates in the nation are in our own backyard. According to a controversial study, rates in Marin County increased by 60 percent between 1991 and 1999, compared to less than five percent in other areas; 20 percent of this between 1998 and 1999 alone.

Speculation abounds as to the cause of this stunning ranking, which is comparative to other regions including Cape Cod and Long Island. But high breast cancer rates are not exclusively predominant in these areas – the rate in the Bayview Hunters Point area of San Francisco is also disturbingly high.

Many scientists warn that these "cancer clusters" simply occur when people of similar high-risk backgrounds live near each other, rather than due to environmental factors exclusive to the area. In this case, the areas mentioned above – excluding the puzzling rates in Bayview Hunters Point – are home to affluent Caucasians, who are statistically at the highest risk of developing breast cancer. The Bayview, however, is an entirely different situation – its dwellers are predominantly of color (who typically have a much lower rate of breast cancer) and the district is consistently under scrutiny for environmental issues like pollution and toxin emissions.

Potential risk factors for breast cancer are numerous, and some are fairly unsubstantiated. Linda Garrotte of the American Cancer Society offered the following factors, many of which relate to increased estrogen production during the course of a woman's lifetime:

* Genetics: A family history of breast cancer
* Age: the older you are, the greater the risk, especially after age 40.
* Never giving birth, or giving birth after age 30
* Beginning menstruation at an early age
* Hormone replacement therapy

Other potential factors that are currently being researched include consuming a high-fat diet or being overweight, environmental factors or alcohol consumption.

A study completed in April by local organizations such as the Marin Breast Cancer Watch found that geographic considerations such as how long women lived in Marin County did not have an effect on the likelihood of developing breast cancer; this upholds the theory that "cancer clusters" merely occur when women with like backgrounds live near each other.

Other studies have shown that women who regularly consume alcohol are at a much higher risk of contracting breast cancer. However, another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the amount of folic acid found in most multivitamins and green-leaf vegetables served to counteract the effects of one alcohol unit.

Racing for a Cure

In a recent NPR interview,, DNA pioneer James Watson said that cancer could be eradicated in the next ten years. The major issue in finding a cure was, is and continues to be funding.

Many organizations are involved in fundraising efforts. The most famous is the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which sponsors the famous "Race for the Cure" events around the nation. Many corporations also get involved; for example, Avon sells breast cancer awareness merchandise and donates the proceeds to research, and also sponsors activities like the Walk. Other active local organizations include the Breast Cancer Fund and the Marin Breast Cancer Watch; Marin General Hospital operates a BREAST Center, where women can get more information from trained volunteers.

Although it is a more generalized organization, the American Cancer Society is also very involved in breast cancer research, education and patient services. It offers three main programs for women facing breast cancer, including a "Reach to Recovery" program in which volunteer breast cancer survivors meet on a one-on-one basis with people who need assistance in dealing with breast cancer. The Society's "Look Good... Feel Better" program gives women experiencing appearance-related side effects instruction in makeup application and wig/hat suggestions. In addition, it publishes a "tlc" (Tender Loving Care) catalog containing hats, wigs, pocketed bras and breast forms at low prices. The catalog also contains information about how to challenge HMO decisions.

There are many ways to help out. For example, the SF American Cancer Society will be holding its first local Relay for Life on August 23-24. At Relay for Life, teams of volunteers spend a 24-hour period with at least one of their(its) sk members continuously moving around a track. The funds raised go to help cancer survivors and research. This year's event will be held at School of the Arts near West Portal.

To get more information on the Relay, attend the information session on Tuesday, May 13 at 6pm, at the San Francisco Main Library near City Hall.

The Marin Breast Cancer Council, another local organization, is committed to raising funds "for nonprofit organizations that support women in their journey with breast cancer and educational issues concerning breast health," said Elaine McCarthy, a representative of the Kentfield-based Council. The group holds an annual "Stepping Out to Celebrate Life" gala each September that features breast cancer survivors modeling local fashions on a runway. McCarthy, a breast cancer survivor who also serves on the board of the Breast Cancer Fund, has bicycled across Alaska and climbed Mt. Fuji to raise awareness for her cause. The Komen Foundation presented her with its "Hope and Inspiration Award" in 2000.

"I have been given the ‘gift of cancer,’" McCarthy said, "a statement difficult for many to understand. It has impacted my life; it has defined my life. But with the journey of cancer comes the gift of life that, in turn, affects those around you. This is what MBCC does, positively makes a difference in the lives of women battling this disease. Cancer is not the end of life but a new beginning."

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2003 listed from newest to oldest.

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