Sometimes I wonder how I got cancer, then I wonder why I waste my time….


skull putting on lipstick

I’ve turned you all off all ready with the whole breast cancer thing, no? Sorry about that.

Anyway, now that I’m in treatment limbo I’ve got a bit more time on my hands than before and am thinking of the permanent changes I want and need to make to keep “the beast” at bay. Exercising (just as soon as I can, I swear), eating more healthfully, getting enough rest are just some of the obvious things that I’ve been doing even before my diagnosis, but certainly after.

I’m really interested in the environmental causes of cancer (and other aliments, especially chronic diseases). Because from all that I know, from my medical team (as I like to think of them), cancer researchers, and from my own research there is no reason I should have breast cancer at my age. Even a “low key” form of it.

It seems only logical to me to eventually turn to what I’m putting “on” my body and what is going into it just by being out in the world. Since there are obviously numerous directions I could take with this, I’m starting with the things I personally put on my body – cosmetics, lotions, etc.

Parabens are preservatives commonly found in cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. I checked my shelves and found them in all my lotions, moisturizers, some foundations, etc. The link between parabens and breast cancer appears to be a weak and controversial one. But as a statistical anomaly, I’m buying organic fruit too, I figure why take chances. The problem with parabens is that there is some evidence that they do seem to cause some estrogenic activity and act as xenoestrogens within the body. So far all of my cancer has been estrogen and progesterone receptor positive. I’m currently taking a daily selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) to regulate and lower the estrogen levels in my body and with the diagnosis was ordered by every doctor to get off the pill, which I had been taking for about 9 years, immediately. (This is another controversial topic all together as the research seems to be contradictory, but certainly gives me pause.) Although the paraben-breast cancer link seems uncertain at best, again, being a bit of a medical curiosity myself, I see no reason not to take precautions. If I’m going to slather my body with various lotions, extra thanks, in part to the tamoxifen prematurely turning me into an old lady, they can a least be paraben free, right?

A big fan of Lush cosmetics I thought that I could probably go on a shopping spree there and get yummy, paraben free products and was unhappy to find that most of their moisturizers contained parabens.

So I sent them a letter:

“Hello, I am a a 29 year old woman currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer which is estrogen and progesterone receptor positive (meaning that estrogen and progesterone feed the cancer and need to be reduced in my body). I’m currently on hormone therapy treatment (to reduce the amount of estrogen in my body) but have been told to avoid parabens of all kinds (ethyl-methyl-butyl-propyl parabens) as some research indicates that when absorbed into the body it can mimic the female hormone oestrogen. As a result, I have become more selective in the cosmetic products that I use and was almost certain that I could turn to Lush to provide me with an ethically responsible, quality product, which didn’t contain these potentially harmful chemicals.

I’ve been using Lush cosmetics regularly and giving them as gifts since I found my first Lush store while on vacation in Dublin. Shortly thereafter I moved to Washington DC and was delighted to be able to shop in the Georgetown store. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that many of your facial moisturizers contain at least one paraben product. After checking the ingredient list of several products, I stopped looking for one which doesn’t contain parabens. Is it simply a lost cause? Must you use parabens in your products? Will I have to discontinue my use of your lovely soaps and moisturizers? Considering my young age, I take what my team of DC doctors recommend very seriously and am doing all I can to prevent recurrence (the odds of which are 50%) and attempt to have a normal lifespan. I would think that this would be an understandable position on my part.

I simply wanted to bring this issue to your attention in case it wasn’t on the table for your company. I have loved your products, have suggested them to and bought them for others. Unless I can find some products which are paraben-free, for my health and the health of those that I love I’m afraid that I can no longer do so, which saddens me greatly.

Best regards,

and I received a nice response,

“Hi Sarah,

Thank you for taking the time to write this email to us. We are very sorry to hear about your current situation. We understand that you are concerned, and you have every right to be concerned about your health. Please allow us to explain our position on parabens.

We try to avoid preservatives whenever possible. At the end of January 2006 133 out of 205 of our products were preservative-free. The normal life of a cosmetic is 30 months under EU regulations unless one states a use by date. Lush products range in shelf life from 3 weeks to 14 months for products one would normally preserve. We can do this because we use far fewer preservatives than many other companies.

Most manufacturers today will use 4 or 5 different preservatives in each product. As you may know, we only will use one or two in our products. We do not want to use them but there are occasions when for practical reasons we want to use a type of formulation for it’s benefits along with the ingredients that are effective and customers need to product to last so we have to preserve. In these instances, we use methyl and propyl parabens because they have a long record of safe use and are the mildest available.

A study published in 2004 (Darbre, in the Journal of Applied Toxicology) detected parabens in breast tumors. The study also discussed this information in the context of weak estrogen-like properties of parabens and the influence of estrogen on breast cancer. However, the study left several questions unanswered. For example, the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue.

Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. A 1998 study that was published in the Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found that the most potent paraben tested in the study butylparaben, showed from 10,000- to 100,000-fold less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen). This information combined with the knowledge of what a small amount of parabens that we use in our products stands to reason that there is little cause for concern.

We as the manufacturers are responsible for making safe products and if we have any doubts will drop an ingredient or a product. In this particular case we do not have any plans to stop using methyl and propyl parabens if we need to preserve a product although we will as always try not to preserve a product in the first place.

We understand that many people are concerned about the use of preservatives, which is why we try to provide our customers with as many options as possible. We manufacture many products that contain no parabens. Most of the products that you see in our stores or online that are solid contain no preservatives whatsoever. This includes our solid shampoo and conditioning bars, solid facial care products, massage bars and body butters, all of our soaps and buttercreams.

We hope that you have found this information helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact us again if you have any further questions or concerns.

Thank you!

Lush Cosmetics


So there. Mostly paraben free, but not completely. Because of their great and fast response, I’ll continue to buy what I can there, but certainly not their moisturizers.

I emailed M.A.C. on the same day as I couldn’t even find an ingredient list on their web page but have yet to get any kind of response which pisses me off.

I have found a list of companies making paraben free cosmetics via Think Before You Pink. I think a lot of those products are made by small companies (a good thing usually) but can make them hard to find. I’ve had luck with a company called Beauty Without Cruelty whose products I’m able to find at Whole Foods if nowhere else.

To some it may seem like I’m overreacting, but really I’m trying to take this cancer thing in stride and treat it like I would anything else in my life by becoming active and informed. Being an active consumer is never a bad thing.

microwave popcorn being poured into a bowl

Diacetyl is a chemical used in small amounts in wine and beer to impart a pleasant mouth-feel, but is also employed as a flavoring most commonly to create a buttery flavor in microwave popcorn. Pretty innocuous, no?

According to an article published in today’s NYTimes, “Flavoring-Factory Illnesses Raise Inquiries” diacetyl is commonly used in a concentrated form and is processed in flavoring plants where workers are “handling and mixing diacetyl with other ingredients in cauldron-like blenders”.

For the workers affected by exposure to this form of the chemical, many have developed bronchiolitis obliterans. This disease is life-threatening, has no treatment or cure and in most cases the affected parties were young and healthy before they began working in the plant.

The first case of bronchiolitis obliterans in California was reported in August 2004. Not surprisingly, industry officials deny they have been slow to act but have publically admitted that they have known about health complications arising from exposure to the chemical combined with poorly ventilated workspaces since 2001. A bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, which would ban diacetyl in all California workplaces by 2010 has already passed two committees in the State Assembly.

Other studies conducted in midwestern plants by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirm a connection between workplace exposure to diacetyl and possibly other chemicals used in complex flavoring mixtures. Part of the problem is the fact that, “the safety of these chemicals is usually established for humans consuming small amounts in food [Pollitt 2000], not for food industry workers inhaling them”.

What’s my point? It is twofold. The production and manufacture of products we consider to be unremarkable, everyday use items have a huge impact on the health and safety of millions of people, not to mention the environment. On the consumer side of things this impact is difficult to see and who knows what, if any eventual impact there will be to the consumer, which leads me to my second point – research into the environmental factors which cause chronic illnesses such as cancer are only beginning.

A self-serving concern on my part? To some degree, sure. But at the same time our culture of convenience can only have so long of a lifespan before it burns itself out, taking us with it.

I can eat my popcorn plain, thanks.

NOAA Earth Day image

Happy Earth Day.

Here’s a random set Earth Day related links that I came across that I found either interesting or amusing.

– The EPA has a special front page to their website and a message from the Administrator, Steve Johnson

– WaPo presents their weekly slide show of animal views

Treehugger brings us a story about a really brilliant idea called walking buses.

Lighter Footsteps bring you ten easy ways to go green

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