By Heather Millar
I just got off the phone with the wife of one of my husband’s colleagues. She has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed, dozens of people were incredibly generous with their time. I feel that it’s important to pay that forward whenever I get the chance. We talked for more than an hour.
Here’s the thing: Cancer is not her only problem. She has asthma, and she is sensitive to multiple chemicals. I’m sure she didn’t outline a comprehensive list for me, but here are the few she mentioned: cleaning products, plastics, building materials, perfumes. Some might be skeptical of what are called “chemical sensitivities” but I have no doubt they’re real. WebMD has an excellent overview of the problem here.
As many as 1,000 new chemicals are approved for use every year. Very, very few are tested for their environmental or health impacts until there’s a problem like lung disease (asbestos) or increased cancer risk or hormone issues (bisphenol A). You can find the latest science on various toxins at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The “Toxic Substances Portal” there lists several hundred chemicals and provides links to relevant studies, exposure risks, and associated health effects.
These Centers for Disease Control-sponsored lists are a great resource, but I can’t imagine that they’re even close to complete. We humans have invented tens of thousands of compounds, yet we only have health research on a few hundred. Is it really that far-fetched that many people might be sensitive to chemicals that aren’t that well understood from a medical perspective?
That brings me back to my new breast cancer acquaintance. Imagine facing a modern hospital if you are one of those people whose biology doesn’t react well to various manmade chemicals. My new friend reacts badly to plastic. Hospitals are full of plastic: plastic tubing, plastic masks, plastic syringes, plastic machine casings, plastic railings, and on and on. She reacts badly to cleaning supplies and perfumes. Hospitals are daily doused in cleaning supplies of all sorts, many of them perfumed.
She went in for an MRI recently, and the combination of plastic, perfume, cleaning supplies, and the strong magnetic field of the MRI made her incredibly dizzy. She started to have trouble breathing. The medical technicians offered her something to “calm down.” She finally insisted that they stop the test after about five minutes.
She’s now facing the prospect of surgery. As if it isn’t enough to contemplate having pieces of your breast removed, she has to convince the surgeon and the operating room staff that they need to use different cleansers and that maybe they should consider alternatives to some of their plastic tools. What happens if, as is common in breast cancer, she needs drains after surgery? Those drains are made of plastic tubing.
One of the most difficult trials for a patient is having symptoms that the medical establishment can’t easily explain. I had unexplained, horrible headaches for nearly my entire pregnancy. The headaches brought on nausea that caused me to vomit ten times a day. Sometimes, the pain kept me awake for days. For months, doctors couldn’t explain what was causing my symptoms.
I remember how frustrated I got; how annoyed I felt when my general practitioner suggested that maybe it was just anxiety, that maybe I’d just have to put up with the symptoms. They did eventually figure out my headaches—migraines brought on by pregnancy hormones—but only after seven ER visits, two academic specialty panels, endless tests, and a lot of insisting on my part.
I imagine my new cancer acquaintance deals with that sort of skepticism all the time. She has already concluded that she’ll go through cancer treatment without any more MRIs. She’s hoping that she won’t have to have chemo. I can’t even imagine being chemically sensitive and facing chemo. If cleaning supplies send your system into a spiral, one can only imagine what chemo drugs might do.
This acquaintance said she planned to be quietly insistent with her medical team. She doesn’t want her docs to write her off as a nut, but she’s not going to ignore what her body tells her. She’s not going to let her doctors ignore it either. She’s going to look at her treatment options as double-edged swords; one edge pointed at her cancer and the other at her. She hopes that her cancer, not her body, will endure the deepest cuts. She told me that our talk helped her a lot.
After I hung up, though, I felt woefully inadequate. Though my body may not have liked pregnancy hormones, it’s delightfully insensitive to the chemical soup in which we all live. I didn’t give a second thought to plastic surgical supplies or hospital cleansers as I’d been rolled into the operating room or taken my seat in an infusion ward. I had listened to this new breast cancer patient, but I’d had very little advice when it came to the other issues that she brings to her cancer case: asthma and chemical sensitivities. Do you react to environmental toxins? Do you have any advice for this new cancer patient?