Film is an all-alert on cancer; Probes technology's risk to baby boomers

By Michelle Leslie: Plain Dealer Reporter
Copyright 1998 The Plain Dealer
September 29, 1998

The film "Rachel's Daughters" opens with a funeral. Older women lay flowers on a young woman's casket. They tenderly stroke its lid.

"We are the generation that was born and came of adult age during the most toxic and unregulated decades ever known," a voiceover intones. "We didn't know the 'in' generation was destined to become the cancer generation. ... We didn't know so many of our mothers would bury us.'

"Rachel's Daughters," screening Thursday and Friday at the Cleveland Cinematheque, explores the question of whether the post-World War II technology explosion - DDT and other pesticides, plastics, overuse of X-rays, manufacturing residue, atomic testing and more - is coming home to roost in the form of breast and other female cancers in baby-boom women.

In the year since it debuted on HBO, the 110-minute documentary has done much to bring attention to an issue that isn't sexy but is vitally important to filmmakers Allie Light and Irvin Saraf. Designed to motivate viewers to take action, "Rachel's Daughters" takes you inside, into the grieving, angry minds of some of the hundreds of women who fear, or know, their lives will be cut short.

Lives changed

One of them is the filmmakers' daughter, who was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago at 39. Another is their co-producer, medical writer and activist, Nancy Evans, a seven-year survivor. And another was Jennifer Mendoza, 32, who participated in the project as one of eight amateur "investigators." Mendoza died of breast cancer that spread to her liver, bones and brain before "Rachel's Daughters" was finished.

The investigators, black and white, in their 30s to 60s, well off and just off welfare, fanned out to interview other cancer patients, doctors and researchers. Some of the film's most jarring moments come when viewers learn that several of the youngish women doctors and scientists are themselves breast cancer survivors, and that many of the male experts know a woman who survived or died.

The documentary is named for Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book "Silent Spring" spurred the modern environmental movement and warned of pollution's dangers. One theory concerning breast cancer is that some chemicals or chemical combinations can mimic estrogen. These interlopers enter cells, damage DNA and provide the link in a chain of events that promotes tumor growth. Research indicates increased exposure to estrogen (including one's own, over a lifetime) increases breast cancer risk.

The New York Times recently reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is just beginning to screen chemicals in pesticides and everyday products for endocrine disrupters, substances that mimic hormones or otherwise interfere with the hormonal systems of people and animals.

Can we afford to wait?

Can we say for sure that environmental toxins cause cancer? No. The question "Rachel's Daughters" asks is: Can we afford to wait until the scientific community gives us a responsible, meticulous, protracted answer?

Microwave News editor Louis Slesin, one of more than two dozen experts interviewed, puts it this way: "When it comes to public health, you must act before all the chips are in."

How? The documentary's accompanying Community Action & Resource Guide lists organizations to contact for more information, plus advice on becoming politically active and avoiding pollutants at work and home.

To Deborah Golder of Rocky River, Slesin's comment is the crux of the film. "We can't prove [environmental toxins] cause breast cancer, but we have to act as if it does," she said. The 60-year-old critical-care nurse has lived with breast cancer for the past eight years and is known locally for speaking and writing about the issue. She watched her own copy of "Rachel's Daughters" again and found it "just as good the second time."

"I think it's a must-see for every woman who ever had a breast. I really do," Golder said. She added that she is grateful for any project that focuses on the causes, rather than the treatment, of breast cancer.

"I'm expecting a new grandchild," she said, "and if it's a little girl, I don't want her to have to worry about this."

By the midpoint in the film, when the once ebullient Mendoza lies in a hospital bed crying, "It shouldn't have to be this hard," the now sister-close interviewers have made it clear that "Rachel's Daughter's" is not for them, that it is too late for them and for an untold number of their peers.

For despite advances in detection and life-prolonging treatment, there has been very little change in the breast cancer mortality rate.

The documentary's memorable closing scene - dozens of still women in mourning veils, representing the dead - retains its power. But given the eerie prescience of her warning, it is Carson's own words that linger.

"We have to remember that the children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth," the naturalist said in a taped interview in 1963, a year before she died of breast cancer. "What is going to happen to them in adult life?"

GRAPHIC: BOX: FOR YOUR INFORMATION; The Cleveland Cinematheque, in the Cleveland Institute of Art, 11141 East Blvd., will present "Rachel's Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer," at 7:15 p.m. Thursday and 9:30 p.m. Friday.

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