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With the waves crashing in front of you, the sun warming your body, and a slight breeze coming just over the dunes, you would never think you were sitting on a beach considered to be a breast cancer "hot spot." Unfortunatly, if you were sitting on certain Cape Cod beaches, that's just what you'd be doing.
"It's an unfortunate situation, I lost two sisters and my mother-in-law to breast cancer, all of us lived on the cape most of our lives. Their doctors were pretty sure it was caused from our contaminated drinking water," said Joan Swift, of Dennis, MA.
In Massachusetts, determining the causes of breast cancer has been a top priority since 1990 when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health published a town-by-town cancer statistics for 1982-1990. The figures showed breast cancer incidence was significantly elevated in nine of the 15 towns that make up the Cape Cod region. What is significant? Research showed that breast cancer was about 20% higher on Cape Cod than in the rest of the state. In some of the towns - such as Dennis, Harwich, Chatham, Orleans and Falmouth - they are even higher.
While women in this region continue to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an alarming rate, it is only normal for residence to want answers. Many years of research have found a couple of possibilities for this tragic problem. According to researchers at Silent Springs Institute in Newton Massachusetts, a possible reason behind the high cancer rates is the use of pesticides in marshes, cranberry bogs, golf courses and residential areas. Researchers are also looking into the possibility that synthetic chemicals found in common household products are to blame. Cheryl Osimo, Silent Springs Cape Cod coordinator, called the study's discoveries an important step.
"It is not only about Cape Cod. The findings have implications for breast cancer research throughout the country," said Osimo.
Silent Springs Institute, a nonprofit research organization, was founded in 1994 by the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and a group of Cape Cod citizens. Its goal is to find preventable causes of breast cancer, the most common cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer deaths among women 35-46 years of age. The Institute focuses on measuring exposures Cape women may have had during the past 40 years to more than 100 chemicals known to mimic estrogen, a know risk factor for the disease.
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"Local Breast Cancer Hot Spot." 123HelpMe.com. 17 Nov 2019
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A report published by the Silent Springs Institute said that many of the known risk factors for breast cancer are related to lifetime estrogen exposure. Scientists are beginning to learn that synthetic chemicals - compounds in ordinary products like pesticides, detergents, and plastics - can act like estrogen. If natural estrogen increases breast cancer risk, some people feel that scientists should be asking whether chemicals that mimic estrogen are also linked to breast cancer. The report also said that on the Cape, when these types of products are used in the home, they are disposed down the drain to a septic system, where they can move through the Cape's sandy soil into groundwater. From the groundwater, they may ultimately move into drinking water supplied from shallow wells that are common on the Cape.
If you're a resident of a Cape Cod community, or simply visit the area, you know that the Cape is famous for its cranberry bogs. Unfortunately, to keep these bogs functioning, many owners sprayed their bogs with pesticides. It was unknown to the owners, or to those living around where spraying was occurring, that these pesticides would inevitably seep into the ground, contaminating the water sources around them. Similarly contamination of both water and air supplies occurred when marshes were sprayed to reduce the mosquito levels. Around golf courses, (including the residential areas around them) pesticides were also sprayed to rid trees of gypsy moths.
This type of contamination has possibly affected many local Cape women. Jane Chase, a resident of South Harwich, is one of them.
"I've lived in my home since 1957. It's next to a marsh that could have been sprayed for mosquitoes. But I've no idea what pesticides were used or what long-term effects they may have," said Chase.
Chase is the first woman in her family to develop breast cancer, which led her to believe that this wasn't simply a hereditary health issue. Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, Chase has been working with scientists at Silent Springs to figure out the mystery, and not just for her own well being either. Chase has both a daughter and granddaughters living on the Cape, and wants to find out all she can to protect them from ever developing this incurable disease.
Although Silent Springs is probably the most known research group working on this issue, there are also others that have recognized the problem and are doing what they can to help solve this mystery. One of these groups is the Boston University School of Public Health, which in 1998 published the results of a study they conducted. The study suggested association between breast cancer and perchloroethylene (PCE : also called tetrachloroethylene) exposure from public drinking water. Women were exposed to PCE when it leached from the vinyl lining of water distribution pipes from the late 1960's through the early 1980's.
Those groups conducting research have all agreed that a huge question about air and water contamination surrounds the Massachusetts Military Reservation. It has been found that in the past, the MMR had burned propellant bags to get rid of them. However as researchers have further found out, burning these bags released toxic chemicals into the air which was brought downwind and contaminated the air quality in many residential areas.
Some Cape Codders, such as Swift, blame their contaminated drinking water on the chemicals that have leached into the groundwater from the MMR.
"They've known for a long time that Camp Edward (MMR) has been a major source of contamination, but it hasn't been until the past ten years that clean up efforts have become as significant as they are," said Swift.
One of the significant areas within the MMR has been named Demolition Area 1, which is a former military training area used from the mid 1970's to the late 1980's. Its primary use was for demolition training which including the open burning, detonation, and disposal by burying of explosives.
According to Swift, some may be deterred and upset to find out this type of information, but not her. She said that the sooner we find these things out, the sooner we can figure out what we (as a community) need to do to keep these practices from occurring again. As well as finding out how we can protect other women from being affected as personally as she has been.
Although today we still don't have any definite answers for why women on the Cape are being diagnosed with breast cancer at such a high rate, we do have hope. It is the men and women that work with groups like Silent Springs that bring hope to women like Swift and Chase. Hope that one day, a cause, or a cure will be found.