Don't Just Treat Cancer; Fight It Before It Comes

I am in Cambridge today for some meetings at MIT, and as I rode along the Charles River and through the maze of city streets, I noticed the proliferation of bio-tech companies. Several firms have set up shop here to be close to Boston’s supply chain of engineering and medical brilliance.

That’s great. But I couldn’t help wondering: where is the cluster of companies devoted to preventing cancer? Where is the industrial park or corporate campus for them?

This is personal as well as professional for me. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. No one is ever prepared for a moment like this, but I was really caught off guard. I was in my forties--which is young for breast cancer--and no one in my family had ever gotten cancer before.

After researching the disease and talking with specialists, I became certain that the cancer was caused by a combination of my genetic makeup and environmental factors. I grew up in northern New Jersey during the 1950s and 60s. This was the boom of the 20th century chemical society, and there was a tremendous amount of pollution in the region then.

We may have put DDT behind us, but now everyday products--such as fruit grown with pesticides, milk doused with hormones, and cosmetics made with phthalates--include something called endocrine disruptors, chemicals that are associated with abnormalities in reproductive organs and with hormone-sensitive diseases like breast cancer.

Every time I see my oncologist, I tell him, “You are doing great on the treatment front, but what about finding the cause?” I ask because I am worried about my three daughters. And the truth is they are worried too. When I was their age, I never thought about cancer, but this is the legacy we are leaving behind. Because we are cancer survivors, our children think they are going to be next.

Today’s New York Times ran a story about the Wall Street performance of Genentech, the nation’s largest biotech company. During the final quarter of 2007, Genentech’s revenue rose to $2.91 billion. Some of that growth is driven by the company’s breast cancer drugs, including Herceptin--one of the most exciting developments in breast cancer treatment to come along in years. I wish that drug were available when I was getting chemotherapy.

Of course we need money for cancer treatment. But we also need to invest money in preventing it. We need to reward companies--and their stock prices--for removing carcinogens from their products. We need to use our consumer power to send a powerful signal to manufacturers: safe, green toys, baby bottles, household cleaners, and cosmetics and body care is where the money is.