What You Can Do About Marin’s High Breast Cancer Rate – Part 1

With the Dipsea Hike for Zero Breast Cancer 9-22 in Mill Valley, Janice Barlow talks about high breast cancer rates in Marin, preventing breast cancer, the popular Dipsea Hike and more. Part 1 of 2.

If you ask any woman who lives in Marin County why breast cancer rates are higher here, chances are she has thought about it and has some ideas. When you talk to numerous women in Marin about high rates of breast cancer, this can add up to hundreds of different ideas about why rates are higher. This is why we are fortunate to have a local organization dedicated to bringing community input to the research process and getting to the bottom of this question right here in San Rafael, Zero Breast Cancer.

With the Dipsea Hike for Zero Breast Cancer around the corner on Saturday, Sept. 22, I caught up with Zero Breast Cancer Executive Director Janice Barlow about what the research says about high breast cancer rates in Marin (and to a lesser extent the Bay Area). In the next installment, we'll cover more about what you can do to prevent breast cancer as an individual and community member as well as plans for the 10th Anniversary of the , where hundreds gather at in Mill Valley to hike or run 6 miles, up the legendary Dipsea steps, and on to gorgeous Mt. Tam trails, both raising funds for breast cancer prevention research -- and reducing their personal risk through physical activity. (More about that research is discussed in part 2)

Hannah Doress: Where are breast cancer rates right now in Marin?
Janice Barlow: Well the breast cancer rates in Marin have continued to be high in comparison to California and the United States. So in Marin county the last rate published, in 2009, was 152 women per 100,000 in Marin County compared to 122 per 100,000 in California and the U.S. in general. We think, based on currently available sources, that Marin’s rates are on average between 10 and 20 percent higher than rates in California.

Hannah: What’s all the hubbub about Vitamin D?
Janice: It’s a controversial subject – the research is not clear in this area.

Hannah: Why are high breast cancer rates happening in Marin?
Janice: We probably know more about breast cancer in Marin than anywhere else in the world. Part of it can be explained by who lives in Marin – the demographics, their reproductive histories (delayed childbirth, less breastfeeding) and use of Hormone Replacement Therapy, but at the same time, on the other hand, there are things about the women who live in Marin that are protective, they are very physically active, they have low body mass index and they eat healthy. So we don’t have all the answers, which is why we need to continually look for new risk factors to study. We welcome the community to share their ideas what might be causing breast cancer in Marin by emailing us at info@zerobreastcancer.org.  

Hannah: What is the role of environmental causes of breast cancer?
Janice: We are proud that Zero Breast Cancer has taken a pioneering and a leading role focusing breast cancer research on the environment – including lifestyle and chemicals. We are continuing to partner with reputable scientific and academic institutions like Kaiser Permanente, Breast Cancer Research Program, Lawrence Livermore, USC, Columbia University and others. We’re helping them get the grants - we are involved in the writing of the grants, and we are influencing the research agenda on behalf of the community.

Hannah: What local pollutants are having an impact?
Janice: I don’t imagine toxins produced from wood smoke differ much from those found in second hand smoke, which is known to increase risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. An important point is that breast cancer takes decades to develop. So where you are living at time of diagnosis might not be as important as where you lived at other times in your life. I certainly don’t think Marin is pristine. We have lots of dry cleaners that off-gas and other sources of pollution. Zero Breast Cancer feels we have never really looked at the environment in Marin County in a systematic way. We would need substantially more resources to do this and there are challenges associated with looking at environmental exposures. We continue to advocate for environmental research because there is so much more important information that we need in this area.

Hannah: How significant is breast cancer compared to other health issues in Marin?
Janice: I think breast cancer is THE public health issue for Marin County. It is very well known among researchers and people living in Marin, that Marin has had historically high rates of breast cancer – and we are a small county, one of the smallest in the country actually – so each person here is that much more likely to be affected by this. Everyone knows people with breast cancer. It’s discussed often both in the media and in conversations, with neighbors, friends, physicians and researchers. I really can’t think of another health problem that is discussed as often or that people ask as many questions about as breast cancer.

To join the multitudes gathering to support breast cancer prevention research and education at the Dipsea Hike for Zero Breast Cancer on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 a.m. in Old Mill Park, please visit http://dipsea.zerobreastcancer.org

Stay tuned for part 2 where we learn about what we should be doing to prevent breast cancer, both as individuals and as a community, what’s different about breast cancer prevention research, and more about what’s happening at the Dipsea Hike for Zero Breast Cancer.

More about Zero Breast Cancer:

Zero Breast Cancer is a Marin County nonprofit organization dedicated to finding the causes and prevention of breast cancer through local participation in the scientific research process. It focuses on identifying environmental factors and the role they play in breast cancer at all stages of life and across generations. Zero Breast Cancer is the only community-based organization dedicated to finding out why women in Marin and the Bay Area are at higher risk for breast cancer. In partnership with academic and research institutions ZBC has brought several million in research dollars to fund Bay Area breast cancer researchers. Zero Breast Cancer is also the only community-based organization with a main focus on prevention of Breast Cancer through research and education. Their goal is the elimination of the disease. For more information, visit: www.zerobreastcancer.org.

More about the Dipsea Hike for Zero Breast Cancer:

Zero Breast Cancer presents its 10th Anniversary Dipsea Hike on Saturday, September 22nd, 2012 at 8am on Mount Tamalpais starting and ending at Old Mill Park, 300 Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley, CA. The event raises awareness about the importance of physical exercise to reducing breast cancer risk for adults and youth, while raising funds to support the research, education and community outreach programs of Zero Breast Cancer. Zero Breast Cancer is the only community-based organization dedicated to finding out why women in Marin and the Bay Area are at higher risk for breast cancer. The beautiful 6 mile loop trail is good for hiking or running. Prizes will be awarded and complimentary food, mini-massages & music will follow the hike. Adults $35; Students $20; Children under 11 are free. The event was founded in 2002 by Annie Fox, a former ZBC Board member, Marin County employee, avid trail runner and breast cancer advocate who died of breast cancer at the age of 35. Business supporters of the event include Marin Independent Journal, Tamalpa Runners, Good Earth Natural Foods, Sports Basement, Whole Foods Market Miller Avenue, Preventive Medical Center of Marin, Sport Loop, Speak to Me, United Markets, All California Mortgage, The Safeway Foundation, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Elan Fitness Center, YogaWorks, Bradley Real Estate, KWMR, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Mighty Leaf Tea, Zaaz Studios, US Pure Water, La Boulange and Hanna’s Italian & Mediterranean Restaurant. For more information or to register visit: dipsea.zerobreastcancer.org

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Citizen September 20, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Hannah: What local pollutants are having an impact? Janice: I don’t imagine toxins produced from wood smoke differ much from those found in second hand smoke, which is known to increase risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. This is interesting because we in Marin are very careful about what we eat and drink, and we also need to be aware that what we *breathe* affects our health. Most people know that, say, dry cleaning chemicals are not good for your body, but fewer know that particulate pollution and the other chemicals in woodsmoke are also harmful. Interesting reading: http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/pdfs/woodsmoke_health_effects_jan07.pdf http://www.familiesforcleanair.org/health/
Rico September 20, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Citizen, One thing that comes to mind is that many Marin women consume GMO corn, and also that they can afford to drink a fair amount of wine. I know a few people that have wine cellars with all the HVAC equipment. The problem with wine is, it is a very chemically intensive industry. Vineyards use powerful systemic fungicides like Eagle 20, pesticides and herbicides. That might be something to look into rater than wood smoke. Hardly anybody with any money needs to burn wood for heat down in the urban corridor. The majority of people (except in west Marin) have PG&E gas for heat, and they only burn wood on special occasions. Instead of focusing on things that are not a real problem like wood smoke and second hand smoke, people should focus on the food that we eat, the occupations that are hazardous, the chemicals used everywhere, sleep habits and air pollution from motor vehicles. Those things,t if properly looked into might reveal some real answers instead of blaming it on things that are insignificant. Sometimes I get the feeling that some people really don't want the truth to be known, they are just looking for a scapegoat. It's an easy way out to continue the status quo. If the real truth was known, the so called economy would come to a screeching halt, and there would go much of Marin's new money !
Citizen September 20, 2012 at 03:01 PM
Richard, I agree that we should not focus *only* on wood smoke, but it does merit consideration. Many people don't think much about what they breathe. Like you, I used to think that the contribution of wood smoke to pollution in the Bay Area was negligible compared to other sources. Not so. The BAAQMD's recent report (http://tinyurl.com/9q9wpam) notes that wood smoke makes up 38% of PM2.5 pollution during the winter. Even if you think that figure is high, that's not insignificant by any measure! As, as you point out, many who burn wood don't do so out of necessity. Unfortunately, our neighbor's choices affect us--we can chose not to drink wine (to cite your example), but we can't chose to not breathe :-) Just as those who live near, say, highway 101 are disproportionately exposed to traffic pollution, pollution from wood smoke is not evenly distributed around the Bay Area either. Perhaps no one in your neighborhood burns (which is great)! I am not attributing high breast cancer rates solely to wood smoke or to second-hand smoke. But clean air is healthy air. Air pollution (in general) is extraordinarily harmful. Google "air pollution" and "health effects" to see what I mean. If we can reduce our wintertime air pollution by 30% by reducing our wood burning, that would benefit everyone. By the way, I agree that we should limit our chemical burden as well. This isn't an either-this-or-that issue. Keeping our air as clean as possible is part of the solution.
Rico September 20, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Citizen, Wood smoke from heating is not a constant issue, it is mainly in the colder winter months. The breast cancer problem is constant, not just seasonal. There was the firing of 3 scientists who worked for the FDA who blew the whistle on the extremely high levels of radiation put out by the machines that scan for breast and colon cancer. Perhaps a contributing factor could be that women in Marin are quick to have any kind of scans and take any drugs being pushed by doctors. Now we find out that these drugs and machines actually cause cancer. Cancer, the drugs for treatment and the facilities built to house these expensive machines is a multi-billion dollar per year industry in this country, and the FDA is powerful enough to be able to fire their own scientists who expose the dangers of these machines. I think that should be a serious concern and should be looked into before seasonal wood smoke. I agree, good air is important and I have seen it firsthand. I live on a street with very little traffic, there are more people that walk up here than cars driving. After living here for the past 32 years, I have seen people come and go, and the older people that lived up here for 50 or more years live to be a very old age. We have one woman who still lives in her house up here and she is now 103 years old ! I attribute it to the low traffic and lots of big redwood trees that give off plenty of oxygen, and exercise from climbing stairs.
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