Monday, April 30, 2007

Preventing Cancer

Cancer. It's a word that evokes terror, confusion and disbelief. Despite advancements in early detection, better treatments and longer survival rates, the number of new diagnoses continues to climb. Buried beneath the optimistic headlines in the Canadian Cancer Society's (CCS) 2007 Cancer Statistics, released earlier this month, is the hard reality that we are fighting a disease that continues to evade us.

According to the CCS website, "Despite largely stable or declining age-standardized rates, the total number of new cancer cases and deaths continue to rise steadily as the Canadian population grows and ages."

These numbers continue to rise, despite the multi-billion dollar cancer industry that wages war against the disease. While no one is denying the need for the very best treatment and care for those already diagnosed with cancer, imagine a world where our mantra is no longer, "Cancer can be beaten", but rather "Cancer can be prevented."

Clearly we need to rethink our battle strategy. The problem is that an estimated 90 percent of all cancer research dollars go toward either treating the disease, or looking for a cure. This is precisely why a new national organization called Prevent Cancer Now (PCN) has come together - to put the prevention of cancer first in government policy, in delivery of health services, and in the public's mind

Next month, Prevent Cancer Now and its chief partner, the Saunders-Matthey Cancer Prevention Coalition will be staging three amazing events to raise awareness and funds that will be dedicated to cancer prevention initiatives.

The first event is a four day conference to be held at the University of Ottawa, May 24 to 27, that will bring together some of the finest advocates for cancer prevention in the world, including many outstanding scientists. Cancer: It's About Prevention, It's About Time!will feature keynote addresses by Dr. Sandra Steingraber, renowned biologist, author, and cancer survivor, and Dr. Devra Lee Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, and Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. In addition, there will be 18 workshops and almost 40 speakers, focusing on issues such as toxic substances in the workplace, environmental justice, healthy homes, and electromagnetic radiation.

The second event, which will literally run concurrent to the conference, on May 26 and 27, 2007, is Run, Walk and Roll for Cancer Prevention. The goal is to raise $150,000 to help educate all Canadians about the full scope of the cancer threat, share viable strategies, and urge action on all fronts. The funds raised will go toward a number of projects, including the launch of the new book, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic (New Society Publishers), which is the third major event of the weekend.

Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, was authored by Liz Armstrong, co-author of Whitewash, Guy Dauncey, author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, and Anne Wordsworth, an environmental researcher and writer, and former producer for CBC's Health Show. The book will be launched on Thursday, May 24th to mark the opening of the Conference, and will be available in bookstores in June.

For co-author Armstrong, the release of the book marks the end of years of research and marks a turning point in how we look at cancer.

"The book presents the problems and solutions which range from what individuals can do, to what all levels of government, business, labor, health professionals need to take action on," said Armstrong. "And we think we've managed to pull it all together in a way that is reasonably easy for people to understand."

Armstrong is a passionate advocate for cancer prevention and says that the steps that we've made to reduce mortality rates from cancer pale in comparison to the increasing numbers who will be diagnosed with the disease.

"When you're talking about the rates of cancer that we're currently seeing, these reductions are like saving a few lives on the Titanic," Armstrong said. "The much better news is that more than half of all cancers are preventable with the knowledge we now have."


For more information about the Cancer: It’s About Prevention, It’s About Time! conference or to register, visit

To sign up for the 2007 Run, Walk and Roll, or to sponsor someone who already has, visit,

New Society Publishers, publishers of Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, can be found at

The Canadian Cancer Statistics 2007 can be found at

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Healing Gaia

Viewed from deep space, ours is a tiny, almost insignificant planet orbiting an equally small and unimportant star. Come closer, and our planet begins to take on a bluish tinge. Come closer still, and suddenly the Earth is a brilliant sapphire jewel floating in the inky blackness of space.

It isn't until the Earth is almost close enough to touch that our atmosphere becomes visible. It is this thin veil of gases, which in relative terms is no thicker than the dew on an apple, that makes life on this planet possible. Our atmosphere is as fragile as the breath that separates life from death, and equally as critical.

The paradox is that viewed from the planet's surface, the atmosphere seems like a limitless place. When you lie on your back on a clear sunny day, watching the clouds scud by, or stargaze on a clear night, it feels like you can literally see forever. But what we apparently fail to grasp is that so very little of what we're gazing up to is actually atmosphere.

While the Karman line, which is 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface, is often used as the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, three quarters of our atmosphere's mass is within a mere 11 kilometers of the surface. In relative terms, that's the depth of our deepest ocean, or the distance we could comfortably walk in a couple of hours.

Our atmosphere is made up primarily of nitrogen (roughly 78 percent), oxygen (about 21 percent), argon, carbon dioxide (at an estimated 0.04 percent and rising) and other trace gases, including ozone.

This protective blanket of gases not only shields us from the sun's radiation, but also helps to warm the Earth and make it habitable. When the sun's rays hit the surface of the planet, some of them bounce back out into space. Our atmosphere captures the rest, much like panes of glass in a greenhouse. This so-called "greenhouse effect" isn't new or controversial, and until very recently, worked to keep the Earth's temperatures relatively stable and allowed life to flourish.

The problem is that thanks to human activity, we have altered the balance of gases in the atmosphere. This is at the heart of our looming ecological crisis. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, have thickened the layer of gases that regulates the Earth's temperature. It's as if we have literally wrapped the planet in a heavy blanket.

Ironically, most of the human activities that are adversely affecting the environment are things that we do to improve our own personal environments and make life more comfortable. Perhaps more to the point, we somehow feel entitled to all of these creature comforts.

"We live at a time when emotions and feelings count more than truth," writes noted scientist and author James Lovelock, "and there is a vast ignorance of science." Lovelock is the British scientist who originated the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that all living and nonliving things are part of a complex interacting system that forms a single, living planet. As Lovelock points out, thanks to one part of that system, namely human beings, the entire system is in peril.

Part of the problem is that we don't humanize science. Science is something that we study. It's clear that what is needed is a greater scientific understanding of the Earth's living systems and our own roles and responsibilities within that system. Until we reach this level of understanding and learn to modify our actions accordingly, we place our planet and ourselves in peril.

"Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy," he wrote.

Only when we begin to think of the Earth as a living entity, unique in the known Universe, a bright and perfect blue jewel in space, will we truly begin to heal her wounds.


Earth Day is celebrated globally on April 22nd. This year pledge to make every day Earth Day. Check out Earth Day Canada’s excellent Ecoaction guides at or visit the main website at

For more on the work of James Lovelock, including his latest book, “The Revenge of Gaia”, visit his official website.

Monday, April 16, 2007

In Praise of Volunteers

My husband Brian and I recently were given a very positive answer to the age old question, "Does what I do really matter?" Twenty years ago, when we were still not much more than kids ourselves, we took on the job of being the youth group leaders at our church. We kept the job for a few years until the demands of our own growing family became our priority.

Last weekend we ran into a member of our youth group, his wife and two of their three children. Richard introduced us to his family and commented, "These are the Elstons, the people that led our youth group all those years ago, remember?"

"Remember!" was his wife's reply. "You two had such a positive impact on Richard that we led our own church's youth group for five years."

It was a magical moment and one that reminded me of the immense contribution that volunteers make to the world. Volunteers are often quick to recognize a need or a problem long before any other sector of our society. Concern about the state of our environment is a particularly good example of this. For decades, community activists have worked on such issues as pesticide control, identifying the connection between public health and environmental contamination, and waste reduction. Ontario’s highly successful blue box program evolved from the efforts of community volunteers who set up local recycling programs.

According to Volunteer Canada,"The Canadian voluntary and nonprofit sector is made up of more than 161,000 organizations and almost 12 million volunteers." In short, society simply wouldn't function without the selfless energy of volunteers.

Consider this: all Guide and Scout leaders are volunteers, so are the hockey, soccer and baseball coaches who dedicate their free time to helping our kids. School councils are made up of volunteers and it's volunteers who fuel many community seniors' support programs. Big Brothers and Big Sisters ((you guessed it) are all volunteers. Volunteer boards run our hospitals, community associations, churches, social welfare agencies and not-for-profit agencies. In many smaller communities, volunteers provide such essential services as firefighting and policing. In honor of National Volunteer Week, April 15 to 21, maybe it's time we showed our appreciation. Here are some suggestions:

Be punctual. Volunteers willingly give of their time. Show your respect by not wasting it or taking advantage of it. If soccer practice starts at 6:30, dropping your son off at 6:45 because you were running late delays practice for everyone. Conversely, don't use volunteers as babysitters. Leaving your daughter at camp an hour before it starts, or picking her up an hour after it finishes (because you've made plans for the weekend) is both inconvenient and inconsiderate.

Say thank you. I am frequently amazed at how invisible volunteers are. I chaired a committee of volunteers a few years ago and asked if I could purchase small thank you gifts for retiring board members. I was told there was no money. It's not that they couldn't afford to pay for the gifts; it's simply that nobody thought to include acknowledging the work of volunteers in the budgeting process.

Treat volunteers with the respect that they deserve. Hockey and soccer coaches are frequently screamed at (or worse) by parents who feel that their little superstar isn't getting the special coaching, ice or field time they feel that their child is entitled to.

A friend of mine provides another example of how poorly treated volunteers can be. For years she served on the local school council, putting in long hours, coordinating hot lunch programs, chairing meetings and organizing special events. Despite this, she would often get an earful from disgruntled parents ("My kid's hot lunch was cold!"), who were quick to criticize but slow to volunteer themselves. To her credit, my friend has continued to volunteer because she knows that what she does makes a difference, and therein lies the heart of matter.

One final suggestion: pitch in. If you think you're too busy to volunteer, consider the adage, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it." Most volunteers are extremely busy people, and yet somehow they find the time to give back to society. Maybe it's time we all followed their example.


National Volunteer Week, April 15 to April 21, pays special tribute to Canadian volunteers across the country who give of themselves to better their communities and the lives of others. For more information, visit

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the British

Our family recently made the trip to England to visit our son Peter at university. Being the child of British immigrants, my family frequently made the trip "over 'ome" when I was younger to see my grandparents, assorted aunts, uncles and other relatives. As we made arrangements for this most recent trip, I realized that it had been 25 year since I had last made the trek across the Atlantic.

Things have definitely changed. The England that I remembered as a child lived up to its reputation for being the stoic matriarch of the Commonwealth of Nations. It was stalwart, firm and unchanging. While the thousand year old churches, ancient castles and monuments still exist, modern England is a country of great extremes, some good, some bad and some quite wonderful.

For starters, there is the most remarkable division of the urban and rural landscapes. Canadian planners could learn a great deal by studying how this tiny country has managed to preserve large tracts of green space. This is no small feat considering the fact that England's overall population density is more than 120 times that of Canada, making it one of the highest in the world. More than 50 million people live in an area that covers 130,410 sq. km, which translates into 383 people per sq. km.

By contrast, Canada's population of 33 million is spread out over 9,218,529 sq. km., giving us a population density of just over three people per square kilometer. With so much open space at our disposal we Canadians feel perfectly comfortably spreading out from sea to shining sea. Ironically, the result is that our communities sprawl out uncontrollably, gobbling up the precious green space that we crave. Without the density of population to support sustainable transportation infrastructure such as public transit, we lay down great ribbons of asphalt and concrete that allow us to use our automobiles to connect these bedroom communities to commercial centers and workplaces.

In England, there is no such sprawl. Like the pieces of a patchwork quilt expertly sewn together, the towns are fitted inside large squares of green with nicely trimmed edges. What this means is that although the houses are neatly stitched together, with little room for lawns and gardens, real tracts of English countryside are often within walking distance. This is in sharp contrast to Canadian suburbs, whose promise of life in the country is just an illusion created by developers to sell endless tracts of so-called premium estate lots.

Which brings me to a really wonderful thing about England. Outside the large urban centers, people walk everywhere, regardless of the weather. Within the cities, the heavy population density makes public transit fast and highly efficient. London's famous underground system connects thirteen different subway lines that overlap to form an amazing network that can take you across the city in minutes. Above ground, the subway connects to high-speed trains and buses. Brilliant.

Alas, nothing is perfect. In sharp contrast to its carefully controlled cities and transportation is the great temple of excess, Harrods of London. Billed as the world's most famous and perhaps successful department store, Harrods is the pinnacle of blatant modern consumerism. The store's 300 departments offer customers virtually every consumer good they could possibly think of, provided they are willing to pay the price - and that price is often higher than you can possibly imagine.

For example, we stopped at one of the many restaurants in Harrods for a drink. The price of two small glasses of juice and two small bottles of mineral water was 14 pounds (or about $ 32 Canadian). And that's just the beginning. One piece of underwear that caught my eye cost 55 pounds, ($ 125 Canadian) and that was for a thong.

For the ultimate in decadence, Harrods offer its personal shopping service for those who have so much money they simply can't decide how to spend it. The award-winning "By Appointment" provides a dedicated team of personal shoppers who provide shopping advice on fashion, exquisite jewelry, art, furniture, crystal, antiques, sports equipment and beauty products.

Excess, civility, rampant consumerism, carefully planned and beautifully managed cities and landscapes. The devil, the deep blue sea and a whack of green in between. Here's hoping that there'll always be an England.


Seeing is believing. Check out

London’s transit system is nothing short of brilliant. Visit

Sunday, April 01, 2007


These days it's hard not to feel defeated. We are constantly bombarded with really serious stuff. Global climate change is imminent, countless species appear to be facing extinction, while the demand for landfill space and energy supply grows exponentially. With so much bad news in the headlines, it's easy to forget that we've actually made some substantial progress over the last twenty years. Maybe if we focused a little more on the good news, we might be able to regain the one thing that seems to be missing these days, and that's hope.

Since hope supposedly springs eternal, and spring's finally here, it's time to reflect on the positive changes we’ve made in the last two decades.

For starters, there's ol' blue. Curbside recycling in Ontario began as a corporately funded strategy to keep the provincial government from enforcing refillable quotas for soft drink containers. Once the corporate funding ran out it quickly became a losing proposition. Municipalities were stuck with the bill of paying for the convenience of having taxpayers divide their garbage into two piles instead of one. However, recent improvements to the funding formula, made possible by Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO), means that industry now pays for half the cost of residential curbside recycling programs.

With steady funding and more stable markets for recyclable materials, municipal governments have been able to expand their waste recovery programs. The past few years has seen the introduction of curbside green bin programs, which effectively take the stinky stuff out of the waste stream and turn it into valuable compost. The result is that many municipalities are diverting as much as 70 percent of their waste stream. That's progress.

That's also an amazing educational opportunity. The success of the green bin program has apparently translated into a greater understanding of the value of organic materials. Twenty years ago you couldn't give compost away. Today, consumers are clamoring for the stuff that they put out at the end of the driveway last year, to spread on their gardens this year. What this is effectively teaching the average homeowner is that they don't have to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticide to maintain their lawns and gardens.

This awareness has translated into 125 municipalities that have already passed pesticide bylaws. That number will continue to grow as politicians get the message that the unrestricted use of pesticides is about as socially unacceptable as public smoking became a few years ago.

And that's another amazing sign that we're making real progress. Twenty years ago you could smoke virtually anywhere, anytime. Anyone who didn't like it could literally leave. Slowly, but very surely, one municipality after another passed local bans on public smoking. Eventually, these bans reached a politically critical mass and today we have a province-wide ban. It really is only a matter of time before pesticides meet the same well-deserved fate.

And then there’s the compact fluorescent light bulb. Twenty years ago, a single CFL bulb cost as much as $ 20. To make matters worse, the bulbs were so oversized and ugly that they didn't fit in most fixtures (nor would you want them to.) The light they radiated was harsh and cold. Today, CFL bulbs cost about one-tenth the price they did twenty years ago, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes and radiate a much more natural light. You can even (finally) purchase CFLs that can be used with a dimmer switch. These efficient little miracles can be used just about everywhere and effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Energy Star, "Every CFL can prevent more than 450 pounds of emissions from a power plant over its lifetime." Who says we aren't making progress?

Which brings me to the most hopeful sign of all. We've quite literally seen the light. The issues that are making headlines today aren't new. They've been around for 20, 40, or 50 years or more. What is different is that we are finally waking up to need for serious change. And that's the most hopeful sign of all.

It's only a matter of time before we see the kind of government action, tougher regulations and product innovation that is so desperately needed. The truth is that when the people lead, eventually the leaders have to follow.


For more on Waste Diversion Ontario,

Energy Star offers a complete buyer’s guide for compact fluorescent bulbs and other energy-efficient products and services.