Unlike most good revolutions that start with a slow smolder and then burst into flame, the birth of this revolution was carefully timed to coincide with Carson's birthday. It had been meticulously nurtured and planned to culminate in the events that took place last Sunday morning. As the revered founder of the modern environmental movement, Carson would have most likely applauded the occasion that so deliberately marked her centennial.
What distinguishes this new revolution is that is it as much about mindset as it is about action. This revolution marks the end of the war on cancer, and the beginning of the battle to prevent it from happening.
Under the banner, Prevent Cancer Now, a movement has begun based on the belief that cancer, once unleashed, is a difficult enemy to defeat. The warriors of this new revolution are mostly middle-aged academics, activists, scientists and health care professionals, many of whom are also cancer survivors. Like Carson, they believe that the current cancer epidemic is caused by our relentless chemical pollution of the environment. Also like Carson, they face considerable opposition from the cancer establishment, drug companies and chemicals corporations that stand to make billions by maintaining the status quo.
What makes this new revolution particularly poignant is that Carson herself died of cancer in 1964, two years after her book, Silent Spring, was published. For those unfamiliar with Carson's famous work, she carefully documented the health hazards of man-made chemicals and nuclear radiation and warned that we should work to eliminate these carcinogens from our food, water and air, or face a cancer epidemic. To date, more than 75,000 chemicals have been registered for use, only 1,500 of which have tested for their safety.
"For the first time in the history of the world," she wrote, "every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death." The year she died, cancer struck one in every four North Americans, and killed one in five.
According to the new book, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, "Cancer (now) strikes nearly one in two males, and over a third of all females, and one in four will die." The book, which was co-authored by Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey and Anne Wordsworth, was released last week as part of the celebration that marked the official start of the Prevent Cancer revolution. The book launch, in turn, marked the opening a landmark conference, "Cancer: It's About Prevention. It"s About Time!" that was held at the University of Ottawa. To bring events full circle, it was at this conference on Sunday morning where the audience of 200 activists and academics celebrated Carson's 100th birthday.
The message heard throughout the conference was loud and clear. Our government has lost the political will to protect the health of Canadians and it is not likely to regain that will by accident. As Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards, a pediatrician who spent 15 years with Canada's Health Protection Branch, said, "The government exists to serve the forces that propel it." She explained that in the face of opposition, government bureaucracies invoke the four "Ds" - deny, delay, divide and discredit. Dr. Brill-Edwards resigned from the Health Protection Branch in 1996 due to repeated irregularities with the drug approval process she believed were jeopardizing public health.
Speaker after speaker called upon the delegates present at the conference not to be defeated or accept the status quo, but to recognize the need to rise up and fight for our health and for the health of our children.
"Don't normalize, organize," advised Mae Burrows, Executive Director of the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS). Burrows' passion, intelligence and almost encyclopedic knowledge were indicative of all of the conference speakers.
At the conference closing on Sunday morning, Carson's birthday, poet, scientist, author and cancer survivor, Dr. Sandra Steingraber called the delegates, "The Committee Against Mass Poisoning", much to everyone's delight.
For me, the most inspiring slogan of the conference didn't come from a PowerPoint presentation, off the pages of a book, or out of the mouth of one of the many revered speakers present. It came off the T-shirt of a retired nurse and simply read, "Older, wiser, stronger ... and just a little bit dangerous."
All of the remarkable presentations heard at the Cancer Prevention Conference will be available online at www.preventcancernow.ca.
Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, is published by www.newsociety.com.
The Silent Spring Institute is a partnership of scientists and activists dedicated to identifying the link between the environment, women’s health and cancer. Go to www.silentspring.org .
For more on the life and legacy of Rachel Carson, visit www.rachelcarson.org.
Labour Environmental Alliance Society.