The Women's Resource

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The (Industrial) Elephant in the Room

As the 27th Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) draws to a close and the hue of pink darkens to hard cash purple in the coffers of many cancer charities across the nation, I feel that it’s the right moment to reflect on what’s been achieved.

Public education and raising funds for research and treatments for breast cancer is vital and the huge swathes of mass support across the globe have reached such grand scales that, as a health campaign, it can only be deemed a major success. Yet two crucial questions still burn in my brain: when does public awareness transform into Government action; and how far have British women been empowered to avoid developing the disease in the first place?

Founded in America in 1985, BCAM was originally a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca, maker of several anti-breast cancer drugs) and the aim at the start was to promote mammography as the most effective weapon in the fight against breast cancer.

Although mammography screening is better known today, it hasn’t prevented breast cancer rates almost doubling in England since records began in the 1970’s. We clearly have a problem – and one nearing epidemic proportions.

Today, the focus of BCAM has broadened to include discussion about personal lifestyles as well as screening but any discussion about ‘prevention’ is occasional at best, and never have I seen the term so utterly misused. ‘To prevent’ means ‘to avoid’, not ‘to detect early’ – and in order to avoid a disease, you need to understand all the causes behind it.

As someone who has lived with breast cancer for 18 years, I decided to dedicate my time to highlighting the fact that breast cancer is not the inevitable disease it’s dressed up to be, and to encourage action to begin to focus on the impact of our life-long exposure to toxic chemicals that are known to disrupt the hormone system and have been scientifically linked to breast cancer and other diseases. 

I hit the corridors of power to find out what action was being taken to address our routine exposure to this host of unregulated chemicals in our environment and everyday products, and what did I discover?  No action - just a great,big industrial-sized elephant in the room being consistently and scrupulously ignored.

For more than 20 years consecutive UK governments have chosen to ignore the emerging science on breast cancer and hazardous chemicals. When I asked why toxic chemicals were not included as a risk factor in the National Cancer Plan at its launch in 2000 I was told that they would be ‘soon’ – a decade later I asked the same question, because little has changed. Newspapers trumpet the dire news that the NHS ‘timebomb’  is ticking down to the date when it will be unable to afford to treat the thousands of expected breast cancer patients but still Government shows little interest in addressing a major cause of the disease, the toxic chemicals in our environment.

Until the Government accepts that regularly exhorting women to make lifestyle changes means little whilst they continue to rubber-stamp the use of carcinogens, environmental pollutants, and toxic chemicals in our everyday products linked to breast cancer, then the incidence of this disease can only continue to rise. And women’s human rights to health that are enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), will continue to be flouted in the UK.

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Clare Dimmer, Chair, Breast Cancer UK

Filed under CEDAW health women's rights UK