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What cancer taught me about the climate crisis

Innovation alone will not save us from climate catastrophe. We must first acknowledge the many forms of toxicity that have contributed to our human-made emergency.

Our bodies and the planet share toxicities in common.

Image via Shutterstock/PaulSat

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer two years ago at age 40, climate change was the furthest thing from my mind. My thoughts initially rushed to make sense of what might have caused it; the next logical question was: Why me? As I began to immerse myself in the overwhelming and sometimes contradictory cancer data, that question soon turned into: Why not me?

In the United States, one in eight women will develop breast cancer sometime in their life, one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime — and at current rates, it’s estimated there will be 1,958,310 new cancer cases this year alone. New data also reveals that the incidence of cancer is becoming more common and has been on a dramatic rise, especially for younger people, since the 1990s.

No one is immune: CEOs, celebrities and even presidents get cancer.

While genetics are often used as a proxy in public discourse (my family has no history of cancer), 90 to 95 percent of all cancer cases are attributable to environmental and lifestyle factors. Growing evidence also indicates that of the more than 80,000 human-made chemicals registered for use and found in our day-to-day environment, a growing number contain toxins that can trigger changes at the cellular level that cause cells to become cancerous.

For me, this was validated when I worked with an integrative doctor to uncover the root triggers of my cancer. It turned out that high levels of cancer-causing toxic compounds — methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) , benzene, mercury, perchlorate and glyphosate — were running through my system.

What created this toxic burden in my body? Was it living in some of the most polluted cities in the world throughout my childhood, Mexico City and Los Angeles? Was it drinking unfiltered tap water most of my life? Was it my 15-year use of the birth control pill, which obstetrician-gynecologists over the years said was totally fine? Was it the unpronounceable ingredients in my skincare products, makeup and hair dye? All of the above?

The focus on innovation often ignores its role in perpetuating the environmental racism, marginalization and poverty experienced by communities.

As a sustainability professional who had devoted the past quarter of my life advocating for sustainable businesses, exploring vegetarian and vegan diets, and being careful about so much, the diagnosis was a hard pill to swallow. The silver lining to my year-and-a-half-long treatment journey was that it opened my eyes to the multifactorial nature of cancer and its interconnectedness to the greatest threat to humanity: climate change.

This is some of what I’ve learned.

Poison paradise

Rachel Carson and her seminal 1962 book "Silent Spring" helped launch the modern environmental movement with its exposé of DDT’s insidious effects on the health of natural ecosystems. Its impact remains evident today in everything from the ongoing influence of the Environmental Defense Fund to the rise of "clean" and "nontoxic" brands.

Yet, so much of the environmental rhetoric reflected in business and politics has shifted from removing toxic chemicals from consumer goods and everyday environments to the aspirational language of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Scaling innovative decarbonization and electrification solutions have taken center stage.

While many of those innovations portend to curb greenhouse gas emissions and ocean acidification, they fail to explicitly address the exponential rise in autoimmune conditions, chronic diseases, fertility issues and neurological disorders that have soared over the past decades due to ever-present environmental pollutants. Even more, the focus on innovation often ignores its role in perpetuating the environmental racism, marginalization and poverty experienced by communities who reside and work in heavily polluted industrial zones.

The language of "race to the top" in sustainable development and "race for a cure" in cancer research have undoubtedly produced life-saving inventions, but at what cost?

There are no separate systems

Our Earth has cancer. We cannot innovate our way out of the climate crisis without acknowledging the many forms of toxicity that have contributed to our human-made emergency.

Beyond the environmental toxins, our mental, emotional and physical health is also affected by daily transgressions. Working with big egos, processing micro-aggressions and navigating office politics can all put a body into chronic fight-or-flight mode. The Great Resignation, quiet quitting and burnout are only symptoms of toxic work cultures writ large.

We need more organizations that value people and the planet over profit and act as stewards of human and natural capital that work together to serve a greater collective purpose. No other company exemplifies such standards as Patagonia; its commitment to transparently remove forever chemicals from its outdoor apparel and gear, implement company policies that support working families, facilitate grassroots environmental action and transform corporate ownership structures demonstrate systems thinking and purpose-driven values. Where are the Patagonias of other industries?

If our bodies are artifacts of our time, what is the price that we are paying for progress?

Corporations that want to take climate action need to do more than innovate; they need to look inward. The more that businesses across sectors and lifecycles — from emerging lab-grown meat producers to multinational electric vehicle manufacturers — adopt a systems-level approach that includes product safety alongside cultural transformation, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice and conscious leadership, the closer we will be to creating a more livable and abundant world for all.

Conscious leadership

Just as the White House’s recently relaunched Cancer Moonshot cannot succeed without taking into account the environmental causes of cancer, climate action cannot succeed without addressing all forms of toxicity that impede progress.

The cure for the climate crisis is not innovation; it’s humility. Humility replaces the competitive impulse to "win the race" with an intentional ethos of compassion and collaboration.

What caused my cancer? Was it the stress from experiencing repeated micro- and macro-aggressions? Ancestral, intergenerational and collective trauma? Post-traumatic stress from living through Donald Trump’s chaotic and divisive presidency? The warp speed of modern life that enabled me to unwittingly ignore the signs of toxic buildup in my body? All of the above?

If our bodies are artifacts of our time, what is the price that we are paying for progress? This Earth Day, let’s remember the link between cancer and climate, and that both toxicity and cures can take many forms and often hide in plain sight.

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