What to do about our toxic world when you’ve had breast cancer

Oct 8, 2018 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease.

By Cathy Leman

Positive action elicits positive change. While we’ll never completely rid our environment of toxins and other substances with cancer-causing potential, if we all do our small part to reduce breast cancer risk, collectively we can’t help but make a significant positive impact.

A TruGreen truck brought me to tears.

I’m not kidding.

Cathy Leman, MS, RD, LD

It was April 2015, two months after completing my 20 radiation treatments. To anyone who didn’t know about my breast cancer, nothing seemed amiss – I didn’t look or act any differently.

But truthfully?

I was a mess.

I was struggling, really fighting hard to regain my equilibrium. One thing that helped was to just keep moving. Running, walking, dancing – the type of activity didn’t matter – as long as I could physically move all that pent-up emotion through my body.

It was just that sort of relief I sought when I headed out on a glorious spring day for a long run, only to round the corner at the end of my block and come to an abrupt halt.

There it sat, parked in front of my neighbor’s house, its mile-long nozzle/hose combination stretched across the sidewalk and my direct path, chemicals spilling from its belly; the TruGreen (formerly ChemLawn – but we’re not fooled) truck.

Even if I hadn’t seen it, I certainly would have smelled it. That unmistakable chemical odor assaulted my nasal cavity and reached my brain in seconds, sounding the alarm and triggering the tears, leaving me feeling terrified and utterly helpless.

Let me try to explain. If you’ve had breast cancer, you’ll get it – if you haven’t, I hope you can at least empathize.

It’s A Precarious Membership In The Clean-Slate Club

After my surgery and radiation treatment ended, I felt like I got to “start over.” The cancer was gone, cut out and zapped from my body, and I desperately wanted to hold on to that clean slate, living cancer-free for however many more years I’m blessed to be alive.

To ensure that happens, I yearn for a magic cancer-eliminating wand to scrub the world clean of anything with cancer-causing potential, because hey, I’m doing my part. . .I don’t appreciate my efforts being thwarted by a world that makes healthy living a challenge as a result of the casual dismissal of concern about environmental toxicity.

Yet even if I had that super-power, it probably wouldn’t work. New cancer-causing things would pop up regularly (humans like to create them), and so we’re left with the sad reality that recurrence is a true concern for every person who’s experienced breast cancer.

Hence the precarious nature of membership in “the clean-slate” club.

Did you know? 30% of women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer develop metastatic, stage IV breast cancer.

I didn’t know.

When I found out, one part of my brain thought, “And that means 70% of women won’t.” The other part of my brain thought, “Huh, why did no one ever tell me that? No doctor, no nurse, no one. That’s sh*tty information to learn, and now I’ll never get it out of my head.”

While I’m not consumed by that fact, I don’t take any chances with my health. I do everything in my power to prevent a recurrence, new primary cancer, or any other form of cancer trickery. The fourth anniversary of my diagnosis is looming, and thankfully, so far my strategies (and luck, and physiology, and all sorts of other things I don’t even know about) appear to be working.

You MUST Relinquish Your Power

When I consider all that’s not in my power, like the drenching of neighboring lawns with chemicals, I hardly know where to begin even attempting to put things inside my power.

There’s no way I could possibly avoid for the rest of my life, all known or suspected villains that may contribute on some level to the worldwide breast cancer epidemic.

For example, I moved to DuPage County from the city of Chicago (Cook County) in 1991; 27 years ago. One would think moving to the suburbs from an ultra-urban area would support optimal health (less pollution, etc.), but given the time it takes for cancer to develop, I would wager that my cancer developed post-Chicago. So much for that theory.

As the years in our new hometown went by, I began to notice there were an awful lot of people diagnosed with cancer and wondered in the back of my mind why that would be.

And then I got my own diagnosis.

Find Supporting Data

I began digging into the statistics and found that DuPage county has the 13th highest rate of breast cancer in the state of Illinois, at 145 cases for every 100,000 females.

The state average is 131.7 cases for every 100,000 females. (1, 2)

As far back as 2001, a Chicago Tribune article raised concern around this high rate of diagnoses, quoting this statistic: “DuPage County was 128.3 per 100,000 women for a five-year period, from 1993 to 1997. The state rate for that same period was 108.2 per 100,000 women.”

At the time, former U.S. Representative Judy Biggert urged funding for a new study to investigate the issue, resulting in Congress allocating $92,000 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the disparity. (3)

I don’t know where that investigation led, but it’s one of the things I’m interested in learning more about. I’ll keep you posted.

As recently as August 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported on a high cancer risk in southeast DuPage county, specifically the village of Willowbrook. This article reports on “a finding that people living nearby face some of the nation’s highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.”

A major contributor to the air pollution/cancer risk concern appears to be a company that “fumigates medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs, and food to kill bacteria and pests”, using ethylene oxide, “a gas more dangerous than previously thought.”

From the article: “Ethylene oxide, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of other chemicals, also has been used for decades as a fumigant to sterilize heat-sensitive medical equipment and other goods. The volatile, easily absorbed chemical has been on the federal list of carcinogens since 1985, and in December 2016 the EPA released a long-delayed reassessment linking it more conclusively to breast and blood cancer.” (3)

What To Do Now

I know there’s no need to convince you – you already know this! But as a nice way to tie this all together, let’s agree there’s absolutely no way (short of moving – and THAT’S certainly no guarantee) that I (nor you!) can avoid every errant lawn chemical, drift of second-hand smoke from a stranger’s cigarette/cigar/vape/marijuana, blast of acrid motor exhaust, or gas station/lawn mower/snow blower fumes.


The obsession of it all quite possibly could kill me before any type of cancer ever would.

But obsessed (slightly) I choose to remain. I even go so far as to ask people who smoke near me if they would mind doing it elsewhere; to assuage my post-breast-cancer-freaked-out-by-second-hand-smoke fear. They always graciously accommodate me. Does the look of sheer panic on my face move them to take pity on me? I don’t know or care – I just want them to smoke somewhere else.

I founded “DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer” to serve as the most trusted nutrition, fitness and wellness resource for women newly diagnosed. “Wellness” is the result of deliberate effort and action, and encompasses many areas of our lives; lawns and environment included.

When it comes to environmental toxins, I’m in a learning phase, stuffing my brain with lots of new information in order to help us all make health-supportive choices. In the meantime, it just makes sense to minimize your exposure to chemicals as best you can.

Positive action elicits positive change. If we all do our part to reduce breast cancer risk, collectively we can’t help but make a significant positive impact.

A couple of thoughts to leave you with. . . .

  1. If you’re in the DuPage County area, here’s the organic lawn care company I use: Pure Prairie OrganicsLove them – give them a try!
  2. Read this FAQ on Breast Cancer & The Environment. Although this piece does reference animal versus human studies, the overall education on how environmental toxins impact health is important to know; it’s a good starting point. Knowledge is power! 

Guest columnist Cathy Leman MA, RD, LD, NSCA-CPT is an expert dietitian/nutritionist who, in her words, is, “On a mission to serve the breast cancer community through education and inspiration to “BITE Back” with nutrition, “MOVE Back” with fitness, and “STRIKE Back” with health-supportive lifestyle strategies – especially at the time of diagnosis.”

Cathy is a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist, certified personal trainer, blogger, speaker, and founder of DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer™ a nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle resource for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer who want to build physical resilience to better tolerate treatment. Visit www.dammadaboutbreastcancer.com


  1. Impact DuPage Breast Cancer Incidence Rate 2010-2014
  2. National Cancer Institute State Cancer Profiles Incidence Rates Table
  3. DuPage’s Above-Average Breast Cancer Rate Will Be Investigated
  4. High cancer risk in southeast DuPage County linked to company co-owned by Rauner’s former firm

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