Cancer blues

This is a post about cancer.

This is a post in honor of all the men, women and children who have died from cancer in the post-industrial age.

This is a post that acknowledges, fully, the extent to which American society has led the way in the extermination of these people–these cancer victims.

How many cancer victims do you know?  According to the World Health Organization, cancer accounts for millions of deaths worldwide each year (7.6 million deaths in 2008, more than died from the Nazi Holocaust).

Cancer is a Holocaust.  It is a disease, or disorder, that cuts across every economic boundary.  It is just as prevalent among the 1% as among the 99%.  It is just as prevalent among the highly educated as among the working class, although of course certain professions are more risky: industrial agriculture, factory work, anything involving radiation.

The truth is that most of the technologies we Americans love the most–cell phones, smart phones, wireless, for starters–are hazardous to our health.  Just like junk food, which we also love.  Or the wanton burning of fossil fuels in our beloved SUVs.

When climate change activists tell us we have to give up our fossil fuels to save the planet, we act like spoiled toddlers.  NO! We will NOT give up our toys!  NO!  We will NOT turn down our themostats, or buy smaller cars, or make a concerted effort to switch to solar.

As parents, we Americans are generally pretty permissive.  We let our kids have what they want, unless it is dangerous for them, or detrimental to their health.

I never let my kids drink Kool-Aid or eat Cheetos, because I knew very well that the junky chemicals in those products were harmful.

But I have let them have cell phones. We have wireless throughout our house.  From what I understand, smart meters, which communicate wirelessly, via electro-magnetic radio frequencies, are in the process of being installed on every home in America.

We can’t afford to eat exclusively organic in my home.  We live near a river polluted with PCBs by GE.  We breathe air labeled “hazardous” on many summer days.

And as a result, we are at risk for cancer, just like everyone else in the developed world.  Everywhere that chemicals are dumped into the environment, everywhere that the ozone layer is thinning, everywhere that the winds blow radiation around, living organisms, including human beings, are dying of cancer at elevated rates.

Last week my Human Rights, Activism and the Arts class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock watched a TED Talk by Eve Ensler, who has (so far) survived a run-in with cancer.  Eve brilliantly makes the point that the inner landscape of cancer mirrors the outer landscape.  What we do to the environment comes back to haunt us in our own bodies.

If we humans, of every class background, are now falling sick in record numbers, it’s a reflection of our sick our environment is.  How sick we have made our environment.

Heal our world, heal ourselves.

Eve Ensler has spent years fighting against the violence that men perpetrate on women’s bodies.  A survivor of an abusive father herself, she has waged a heroic battle against her own demons, and the demons that beset patriarchal cultures worldwide.

She is gearing up now for her biggest effort ever, One Billion Rising, a campaign by V-Day to galvanize men and women to stand up against violence, especially violence against women.

I salute Eve Ensler’s ground-breaking efforts to put her art in the service of social justice, and to link the quest for social justice to environmental health.

If we can’t heal our planet, we will not be able to heal ourselves.

We are the cancer on our planet.

Our own treatment approaches would dictate our eradication.  Radiation therapy: burn it out.  Chemotherapy: poison it to death.

But there is another way.

Look upstream, as Sandra Steingraber has been telling us for the past 20 years.

Find out what is causing the cancer, and CHANGE IT.

Find out why so many women are suffering from violence, and CHANGE IT.


Where there is a will there is a way.  How sick do we have to become, how sick does our world have to become, before we find the will to change our ways?

Out of the mouths of babes….

One of the most interesting aspects to me of Carol Gilligan’s research on childhood psychological development is her finding that as girls and boys mature, they lose touch with the instinctive, joyful, totally honest voice they were born with.

To some extent, this is necessary.  No one would want to live in a chaotic society of adult two-year-olds all shouting and crying and singing at the top of their lungs whenever they felt like it!

But it’s the loss of honesty that I find troubling, because it appears that when we lose touch with our own honest assessment of people and situations, we also lose the belief in our power to effect change.


When I was a young girl I was very sensitive to others’ pain, and it didn’t matter to me whether I was witnessing a tree being cut or a seal being tortured by a fishing net, I felt the pain so deeply that it became a wound in the innermost recesses of my own soul.

I’ll never forget one beautiful spring morning, when I was about nine years old. My family lived in the city, and we always arrived at our country house on Friday nights, in the dark.  On Saturday mornings it was my habit to get up early and go out for a walk by myself, reveling in the woods and fields and birdsong that I had missed during the week in the concrete canyons of New York.

On this particular May morning, full of sunshine and the fresh, moist air of spring, my buoyant good cheer was suddenly shattered by a shocking sight by the side of our driveway.  The telephone company had come during the week while we were away and cut down a big swath of young trees underneath the cables that ran along the road, leaving behind heaps of dying limbs and saplings, heavy with oozing sap and shriveling new leaves.

A gut-wrenching feeling of horror clutched at me; I began crying, crooning to the trees, overwhelmed with a feeling of shame and guilt—why were my people, humans, so destructive, so wanton, so careless and thoughtless? I was outraged, upset, furious, and went running back up the driveway to tell my parents, assuming they would share my reaction.

But instead they shrugged, resigned—it was too bad, but there was nothing to be done about it.


And of course now, as an adult, my reaction would be the same.  I witness road crews cutting back perfectly healthy trees all the time, and think nothing of it.

As we grow up, we get inured to the pain and suffering we visit on the natural world day after day.  We learn to tolerate injustice with casual lack of attention.  We lose the moral sensitivity with which we are born, and with it the fire within that impels little children to speak their truths and demand that the adults in their lives listen.

Told that it doesn’t matter whether some trees are cut, or a cell tower goes up, or a dam is built, or that there is so much artificial light at night that we can no longer see the stars, we are gradually lulled, as adults, into complacency, from which it takes a lot to dislodge us.

This is no accident.  Most educational practices consist of training the young to conform to authority and feed back the right answers to the questions asked.

It’s not about learning how to ask the questions that haven’t yet been formulated; the questions that come from one’s deepest reservoirs of knowledge.

Socrates believed that human beings enter the world already knowing everything we need to know, but we forget it in the first weeks of life.  We spend the rest of our lives, he believed, trying to remember.

As children, we know that we humans were born to live in harmony with the other living beings on this planet; to be a productive and positive part of the web of life that surrounds and sustains us.

Adults, I’m speaking to you: this is crucial knowledge that we need to remember, and act upon.

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