The Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project

From the WellesleyWeston Magazine, Spring 2006
The Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project
Viola Morse writer

I never thought of myself as an activist – or as an environmentalist – yet through an interesting twist of fate, some might use those very words to describe me.

It was January 1997, and within weeks, my world came to a screeching halt. My 47 year old husband was diagnosed and operated on for prostate cancer. Then, just six weeks later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. After my surgery, I underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatments, followed by six months of chemotherapy. To quote a famous author, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The “worst” part is obvious. The “best” part is the phenomenal support and love that we received from all our friends and neighbors who rallied around us during this difficult time.
It’s a terrible thing to be told you have cancer, and perhaps even more frightening to have absolutely no clue as to why you got it – no family history, no high risk factors. In fact, I was doing all the things people are told to do to reduce one’s risk for getting colon cancer; I exercised regularly, ate lots of fruits and vegetables, didn’t smoke, and kept my weight down.

I started to examine the situation more closely, and in talking with others found that so many people’s lives had been touched by cancer. Eventually, as I talked with more and more cancer survivors and their family members, I felt that there was more to the story than was typically discussed in polite circles.

A couple of close friends and I got together and started pulling together the facts. Was there really so much cancer in our community, or were we only sensing that because of our clearly biased perspectives? After months of digging, calling and letter writing, we learned that Wellesley did, in fact, have “statistically significant” elevated cancer rates in three different categories and elevated rates in another. We learned that today, 1 in 3 women in the United States will be diagnosed with some sort of cancer in their lifetime. For men, it’s 1 in 2. We also learned that in 1950, that statistic was 1 in 20. Massachusetts has the fourth highest incidence of breast cancer in the nation. What has changed in our society?
We created the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project (WCPP) as an effort to raise awareness about the health risk factors that have an impact on our lives. We were initially advised to forget about our concerns, because this wasn’t a big issue for most people. Some individuals were reluctant to join our efforts, because they didn’t want to focus on bad news. Others were relieved that someone was finally talking about a very troubling issue. We held a townwide forum in the year 2000, and over 500 people came. That’s a larger turn-out than almost any other event in the history of this town.
It took a lot of convincing to get people to understand that our efforts were not intended to frighten the public. We stated then, and still maintain today that Wellesley has no bigger problem than any other community. We just need to acknowledge that there are things in our lifestyle that may impact our health. We may not have factories and smokestacks spewing black dust in the air, but that doesn’t mean that we are not at risk. It is true that we have access to good healthcare, and we see the doctor more frequently than people in less affluent towns. However, that is not why we have high cancer rates. We need to acknowledge that all of our communities, regardless of socioeconomics, are experiencing more cancer incidence. Yes, the survival rates are improving, but the incidence rates are still increasing.
The WCPP took that message to garden clubs, women’s groups, PTOs, town and government leaders, religious groups and senior citizens. I was even asked to give a lecture to students at Wellesley College. We’ve presented lectures and forums, written articles and sent mailings. We’ve worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to establish a special study of cancer incidence in Wellesley.

The chemical industry has contributed many wonderful things to our contemporary lives. But we’ve also paid a price, and we’re continuing to pay without fully understanding the final cost. The WCPP learned about the risks of the chemicals we use in our everyday lives. Chemicals in our dry cleaning processes, our cosmetics, our lawn care. We’ve carried that message to the community, in the belief that intelligent people will do the right thing. The jury is still out regarding all of the distinct and exact causes of cancer. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the environment plays a significant role.

The mission of the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project is to provide practical information to help people make better decisions about ways to reduce health-risk factors in their lives. And we’ve learned that it’s not just about cancer. There have been many studies looking at the impact of pesticides and other frequently-used chemicals on illnesses such as autism, learning disabilities, Parkinson’s, birth defects and fertility.

Prevention, for us, is key. There’s a lot of money in treatment and cures, but not much at the front end of the equation. Unfortunately, this translates into less attention. If you want to learn more about the WCPP and how you can minimize your personal cancer risk, I encourage you to go to www.wcpponline.org. We are actively seeking new board members to take this organization to a new level. If you are interested, please contact the WCPP at 781-237-6465.