Environmental Dangers: What Have I Done to Myself?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an article.  I must say the increasing dose of Methotrexate I am taking weekly is starting to take it’s toll.  I’ve noticed that my stamina and energy have decreased and getting through a day is becoming more challenging again.  I can’t begin to describe how frustrating it is to feel like I’m going backwards.  And so, I can feel my mind spiralling into depression and increasing anxiety.  The pain in my chest continues to restrict my physical activity.  I was beginning to convince myself it was anxiety related.  As it turns out, we’ve finally figured out that it’s Costochronditis, which is basically inflammation of the joints between the strenum and ribs.  It’s regularly uncomfortable and can be extremely painful.  The thing is, if we have inflammation of a knee or an ankle, we can just put our feet up with an ice pack and rest it.  The sternum does not rest.  We must breathe.  At least we know what it is now and can start working on resolving it.  I am incredibly grateful for my new family doctor who is very forthcoming with information to help me understand and navigate these challenges.

I’m doing my best to keep my good fortune top of mind, and to remind myself that this too shall pass.  While I fight my strengthening need to isolate myself from society, I also push forward with writing…albeit less and slower than I have been, but pushing none the less because it’s not all about me.  This is important stuff and may be the difference between whether you or someone you know and love, makes it through acute leukemia.  I’ve been trying to set this article up in a way that would get all the information I’ve learned out there in one shot but it’s just not possible, so here begins the first of a mini series focusing on the various areas of concern that I’ve learned of.  It really boils down to two areas of focus; what have I done to myself and what has my environment done to me.  I think it’s really important to highlight how different countries view different human and environmental dangers so I will provide tons of links to credible websites which evidence the information I am sharing.

Before getting into how the world around us is contributing to our declining health, let’s look at what we may be doing to ourselves.  SIDEBAR!  Let’s be clear about declining health, we have TONS of pharmaceutical options out there to MANAGE disease.  For example, it is estimated that by 2025 we will see a 44% increase in the number of Canadians living with diabetes (Diabetes Canada).  As of 2015, there were more than 25 approved diabetes drugs in Canada to manage this condition (Canadian Diabetes Association.  Instead, I am referring to the increasing population of Canadians who are becoming sick.Nearly 1 in 2 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.  While mortality rates are decreasing for most types of cancer, my focus is on why people are getting sick in the first place, and therefore, how to prevent people from having to tackle such fears, post devastating experience.  I’m sure we can all agree that Canadians’ lifestyles have changed dramatically over the last 30-40 years and it is not all for the better.  We are overstretched, stressed, tired, increasingly disconnected from each other and ourselves and what is commonly referred to as ‘convenience foods’ are basically now a requirement to maintain this insane lifestyle.  I’ll be the first to admit, this is a heavy read.  Grab yourself a coffee, or maybe a glass of wine for this one folks!  Enjoy!

I must say, I’ve been through some pretty challenging things in my life, as has everyone else, I’m sure.  I think it’s safe to say I’ve had a couple life experiences that brought me close to the brink of life threatening injury.  At least that’s what it felt like at the time. Some may call that a dramatic statement.  I call it domestic abuse that one time long ago.  I was convinced that if he had hit me once he would have hit me until I was dead.  Fortunately, I’ve always been a good talker and he hit my living room wall instead of me.  Then, there was that other time with a CO2 cartridge loaded pellet gun firmly placed at my temple.  Was that other bad choice of a boyfriend really trying to kill me for dumping him over voicemail?  Who knows.  What I do know is, I’ve never really felt the very shocking threat of everything around me slipping away until I was diagnosed with cancer.  I’ve mentioned the emotions of coping with cancer in my previous articles and I’m sure it comes as no surprise that fear is the predominant emotion many of us face through this journey.  I know I’m not alone when I’ve been struck with the thoughts of, ‘What did I do to cause this?’, and, ‘What did the world around me do to cause this?’.  One of my strongest drivers since being diagnosed is to figure out how to stop it from happening again.  Today I want to focus on how I’ve navigated through the, ‘What did I do to cause this?’ query.

If you’ve received radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, stem cell transplant or any secondary drug during treatment, intended to keep you comfortable and stable, you have been exposed to toxins that may impact your health going forward.  You may have been warned about secondary cancers you will be susceptible to after treatment.  I’ve been warned to protect myself from the sun as much as possible for the rest of my life as I will now be at high risk for skin cancer.  As a lifelong sun worshipper, this was particularly devastating news.  It also created fear of something I once loved.

Once I achieved remission, my focus turned to beginning to put the pieces of my life back together.  To do this, I needed to reflect on what I had done leading up to that point.  I spent a significant amount of time thinking about all the things I had put my body through for one reason or another and how they may have impacted the outcome of my health.  To be clear, my intent  has never been to beat myself up about my decisions, it was only to reflect and make different, maybe better decisions in the future.  This is a process that continues today but my feelings about it have changed quite drastically since.  Rather than being laser focused on just living to see my 40th birthday, or my kids University graduation, I now view this process as an ongoing, lifetime effort of betterment.  Not the kind of betterment that gets you expensive cars and fancy clothes (which I still happen to really enjoy and have spent way too much energy being focused on) but the kind that improves my quality of life, makes me feel good and fulfilled, continually improves my health and the welfare of my family.  I’m getting ahead of myself though.  Let’s focus on the maniacal fear that I had to experience to get where I am today.  So what had I done to myself throughout the years?

I smoked my first cigarette in grade 6.  The cool kids did it, many of my family members did it and it made me feel like a grown up.  I continued to do it until I was 30 years old.  I quit smoking in 2011 when I had my braces taken off, as I had promised myself 2 years prior when I had them put on, and never looked back. I never smoked much but we’re all aware of the health concerns related to smoking and the potential contribution leading up to my diagnosis was undeniable.

I ate an exponential amount of junk food until I was 25.  By junk, I am referring to sugary drinks and snacks, processed foods and fast foods.  As a very picky eater, it has been a slow progression towards achieving a healthy balanced diet.  What a healthy, balanced diet consists of is a loaded topic in itself.  Having spent some time learning about what our government considers healthy or at least leads us to believe is healthy, learning about industrial farming and how it is impacting our environment and our bodies, I really opened up a can of worms that continues to absolutely floor me.  Suffice it to say, for now, the government who I have always trusted blindly is definitely contributing to our health crisis.  But this is a topic I will tackle in a coming article.

In a bout of rebellion, I bought a boxed dye and accidentally colored my hair purple when I was 14 years old.  From purple to red, a few dark browns and a jet black, then blonde, I finally settled on what I liked best, blonde highlights.    Loosing my hair during treatment, and then having it grow back my natural color, which consists of a duller ash blonde and a heck of a lot more gray than I remember, I had a difficult time grappling between my gratitude for still being alive and my new look.  As one of the 65-70% of women who colors their hair, not donning my blonde locks was a major hit to my confidence.  And so, I started researching the risk of ‘correcting’ my hair color.

I’m not sure why it wouldn’t have occurred to me prior to falling ill, that maybe dyeing my hair every 8-10 weeks for 20 years might eventually take a toll on my body.  After all, throughout the history of hair color, there have been serious health concerns regarding the chemicals used to achieve any desired look.  You can imagine my surprise when I started learning about the ingredients used to dye hair.  Prior to 1980, hair dyes used a number of harsh chemicals that may be contributing to increased risk of cancer in both customers and hairdressers.  The type of cancer seems to vary and there are a number of studies that have conflicting results.  This article by the National Cancer Institute in the United States refers to the various studies of cancer risk correlation and also breaks things down by the type of cancer…one of which is acute leukemia.  Even today, to achieve darker colors manufacturers use coal tar!  Can you believe that?!  TAR!  As you will see in the NCI article, the majority of increased risk seem to be associated to people who dyed their hair prior to 1980 and there does not seem to be a link between hair dye and leukemia for consumers since.  That said, there are still a number of chemicals we could be exposed to when we visit our favorite stylist that may cause a number of unpleasant effects such as skin, eye and lung irritation, among other concerns.  Here is a list of 15 toxins we should avoid in all environments.  I would like to point out the suggested link to breast/bladder cancer and hairdressers.  Logically speaking, hairdressers are exposed to chemicals on a regular basis and the idea of breathing them in daily, would lead me to ponder whether there is significant merit to this suggestion.

I also spent the last 6 years doing laser hair removal.  Prior to starting the process, I was hesitant to do it since the technology is fairly new and there isn’t a ton of published research to help make a decision on whether it’s safe or not.  Even if the research that is out there suggests it is safe, there haven’t been enough years of use to substantiate the long term results.  (For info, check out Does Laster Hair Removal Cause Cancer or Benefits, Side Effects and Cost here).  Regardless of this, waxing is incredibly painful and shaving is time consuming and annoying, so I did it anyway.  Post treatment, keeping in consideration my immune system is compromised during maintenance, I’ve decided to cease laser hair removal.  If for no other reason than to prevent my body from having to spend energy to repair any damage it may cause.  Maybe this will change in the future but it’s just not a priority (or financially feasible) right now.

While I was told after diagnosis that there isn’t a definitive answer on what causes leukemia in any one person, the fact is, we do know a couple of things.  First of all, it’s likely not ONE single thing causes it.  It’s likely a variety of things that have assaulted your body over a number of years beating your body’s ability to fight down.  2.  There are definite links to specific types of leukemia.  For instance, a naturally occurring and synthetically made chemical called Benzene. Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor.  In fact, it is what we smell when we fill our cars at the gas station.  While benzene is a natural occurring chemical, it’s also been synthesized since the late 1800s for industrial purposes.  Benzene is used for making other chemical compounds such as acetone and styrene, nylon and other synthetic fibres.  It also used to be an additive in gasoline.  It is no longer commonly used as an additive but it has been used in larger quantities historically.  It is naturally occurring in crude oil and gasoline.  Benzene is also used in making rubber, lubricants, (hair) dyes, detergents, drugs, pesticides, and a host of other products including cigarettes.  The World Health Organization labeled benzene a ‘Major Public Health Concern‘ in 2010 in the linked publication, yet it is still widely used.

As it stands today, an estimated 375,000 Canadians are exposed to benzene in the workplace.  In fact, it has been linked directly to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (my affliction, Acute Promyelotic Leukemia is a subtype of AML) and there is evidence it is linked to a number of other cancers such as Acute and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.  In November 2017, after a decade long battle, John LaPrade won a battle against WSIB as a result of his benefits claim being rejected.  He was a pre-print technician working in a printing plant who was later diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.  John believed that his diagnosis was directly linked to his exposure to benzene in the workplace, and not being supplied with appropriate measures to reduce his exposure.  He is not the first to submit a workplace related claim such as this.  Since 2006, the WSIB has received 66 claims for benzene and leukemia.  If this isn’t alarming enough, let’s take a look at how Environment Canada classifies benzene.

EWG Benzene

This is just a screenshot of SOME of the sources evidencing the toxicity of this chemical.  I would like to draw your attention specifically to the difference between all of the references made, and the references made by Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.  According to the European Union and the United States of America, benzene is considered an organ system toxin on a number of different levels.  Canada, doesn’t seem to think it is a toxic or harmful substance.  In fact, Canada even considers it, ‘a low human health priority’.  It begs the question, ‘Is my government really looking out for me?’

That is for you to decide.

Digging a little deeper into benzene, I wanted to understand how I may have been exposed to this toxin (because I choose to believe the EU and USA) throughout my lifetime.  What I learned was terrifying.  I have been maintaining fake nails the majority of my life.  I had my first pair of acrylic nails put on when I was 14 years old.  At the time I was admitted to the hospital in December, I was also sporting a gorgeous set of coffin shaped biogel nails which were beautifully painted for the coming Christmas season.  Acetone is used for a number of purposes in applying and removing fake nails.  For acryclic, acetone is used to apply and shape gel, and for shellac, fingers are soaked in acetone to remove polish.

Acetone on Wikipedia

In learning more about acetone, I also discovered it is used in pharmaceuticals.  I’ll leave this stream of research here for now.  Going forward, at least for now, I’ve decided that it’s not the best choice for me to continue using fake nails.  I don’t want to breathe the chemicals lingering in the air in salons and I don’t want to risk my skin absorbing acetone or any other chemical used to maintain my nails.  Which I must say, makes me a little sad.

Benzoic acid and benzonates (which are also benzene like compounds) occur naturally but are also manufactured for industrial purposes.  Under certain circumstances, mixed with other chemicals (which may already exist in the same package) and temperature/exposure dependent, some foods and particularly beverages can turn to benzene.  So, while they are not carcinogenic at the time they are manufactured, if not cared for (presumably as directed), at the time of consumption could be poisonous and you’d never know it until you’re laying in a hospital bed strapped up to 3 different IVs supporting your life.

This has been one of the hardest topics for me to wade through in all the research I’ve done so far.  The fact is, there are international, global and national organizations who all have different sources of information and bodies of research.  Opinions regarding environmental substances vary tremendously.  There is an endless list of substances and environmental exposures that we could explore to identify the contributing factors to our deteriorating health but it would take a lifetime of research.  I think one of the easiest ways to sum this up is this…it is impossible to eliminate all of the toxins we are exposed to.  Some are environmental.  Some are self-inflicted.  We may not even want to eliminate some of them.  I do not drink pop anymore because it’s simply not worth the risk, but I do still paint my nails and dye my hair.  Though I’ve switched to non-acetone nail polish remover, organic hair wash and threw out almost all my hair products.  I think the biggest lesson for me has been to educate myself as much as possible.  I will no longer allow our government…any government actually, industrial farmers, tv commercials or social media to tell me what I should do, or eat, or use.  Learning about how I expose myself to potential carcinogens and making decisions for myself has helped me feel like I’ve regained some control of my life.  The natural result of this is, I feel less fear.  It doesn’t mean the fear is gone but I feel more aware and therefore, more hopeful for the future that I can build for my family and I.

Until next time, keep up the good fight.  You’ve got this!

Published by Michelle Burleigh

Michelle is a highly driven, ambitious woman who gratefully possesses a love of learning and a passion for personal growth which support her ongoing healing and career growth. As a mother of two incredible young girls, a wife, and a patient advocate, and most recently, an author, she has not allowed her December 2017 diagnosis of Acute Leukemia stop her from making and achieving goals. She felt compelled to start SoYouveGotCancer.ca to help people and their loved ones feel more empowered and informed throughout their own healing journey.

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