An Ounce of Prevention

Posted on 30 October 2009

By Karl Grossman

Suffolk County government’s Cancer Awareness Task Force in coordination with the Suffolk-based, now-national initiative, Prevention is the Cure, last week jointly presented a premiere of a stunning video documentary, No Family History. Speaking at the event was Sabrina McCormick, who produced and directed the video and also authored a just-published and equally important and penetrating book, No Family History: The Environnmental Links to Breast Cancer.

Dr. McCormick’s video and book lay out the case that what must be done about the epidemic of breast cancer is dealing with the toxins in the environment that largely cause it.

She chose Long Island as the geographical centerpiece of the video and book because of its high rates of breast cancer. They range up to 200 percent over the national average, Dr. McCormick said, citing New York State Department of Health data. She is the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and an assistant professor of environmental science and sociology at Michigan State University.

The key figure in the video and book is Robin Caslenova, a 44-year-old woman from West Islip, who was diagnosed with breast cancer without a family history of the disease. The documentary follows her ordeal over several years—including the operation she must undergo, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. The video is quite graphic; indeed, the announcement for the event issued by Cancer Awareness Task Force and Prevention is the Cure noted: “This documentary contains adult material, scenes during and after a real-life surgery and its aftermath, and medical situations and discussions which may not be suitable for children or those with weak stomachs.”

In fact, no matter how queasy your stomach might get, this is a video and book that are essential viewing and reading. The truth about cancer, its causes and the ordeal it puts people through, must be faced squarely. Mrs. Caslenova, with her wonderfully supportive husband and their three children, were at the event at which Mrs. Caslenova also spoke.

The video was introduced by Carrie Meek Gallagher, commissioner of the county’s Department of Environment and Energy and co-chair of the Cancer Awareness Task Force. She said the premiere coincided with the launching on the county government’s homepage of a new  website for the task force that includes a “home product checklist” identifying cancer-causing agents. Striking a personal note, she told of how a friend had just had her third chemotherapy treatment that day for cancer.

During the day, Ms. Gallagher, Dr. McCormick and Karen Joy Miller, coordinator of Prevention is the Cure, a program begun by the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition of which she is president, along with other area activists in fighting cancer, met with County Executive Steve Levy who, in a statement, cited a National Cancer Institute report that determined that “50 to 70 percent of all cancer deaths could be prevented.”

Dr. McCormick’s book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, speaks of a “political economy of disease—a vast, powerful group of corporations protected by weak governmental practices that have shaped what we are exposed to every day…It affects everyday lives and deaths.” The book declares that this “vast policy economy of disease has caused us to focus on treatment, detection, and cure while missing a more difficult and political piece of the puzzle—how to prevent breast cancer.” These “institutions often prioritize major corporate interests instead of the public’s health and well-being.”

In the book and video, Dr. McCormick details how cancer-causing chemicals “permeate the planet.” Meanwhile, in 1964 one in 20 women was afflicted with breast cancer and by 2006 it “reached one in eight.” Few have a family history. Breast cancer has become “the most common killer of middle-aged women in the United States, Canada and northern Europe.”

“We exercise. We get mammograms. We also walk, shop, and race for a cure. We know what pink stands for. It means breast cancer. It means raising money. It means finding a cure. The fact is that we are missing the boat,” she writes.

In her remarks at the screening in Hauppauge, Dr. McCormick said “Long Island is the place where all my work began a decade ago.”

She is especially critical of corporations that promote treatment and donate to cancer research while manufacturing cancer-causing toxins. For more information on her documentary and book, visit

Mrs. Caslenova, buoyant despite her travails, spoke of having “a great family that lifted me up,” and declared that “prevention is so minimal” in how cancer is being challenged—and this must change. Indeed, as a matter of life and death, it must.  

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