Silent Summer

Sandra Steingraber

Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment

Addison Wesley Longman

THE ROUTINE IS always pretty much the same when Sandra Steingraber tells her story. She discloses that she had bladder cancer when she was 20; someone asks whether it runs in her family. Yes, she says. Her mother had breast cancer. So did her aunt. Three uncles died of cancer.

Often, Steingraber will end the conversation there, at the look between compunction and relief in her interlocutor's eyes. But sometimes--especially when she's on a podium--she'll add one more thing. "By the way, I'm adopted." This prompts a spurt of laughter, then an awkward pause that makes a perfect foil for the key point. "Families share more than genes," she explains. "They breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat the same food... In fact, the one solid study of cancer in adult adoptees shows that their likelihood of getting the disease is more strongly correlated to their adoptive family's cancer history than to their birth family's."

It's an effective argument, puncturing in one blow a whole series of assumptions underlying what passes for a cancer debate these days. And it's one few other people could have made as effectively as Steingraber, a double authority as a patient and a scientist, with a Ph.D. in ecology and a specialty in the environmental causes of cancer. She could have stopped there, living off her compelling identity, milking her two-fer status for a few extra appointments to panels and task forces like the White House Breast Cancer Action Group.

What's remarkable is that she hasn't. In her new volume of essays, Living Downstream (which follows two poetry collections), Steingraber has taken the coincidence of her biography a step further, in the process reviving the true legacy of another remarkable scientist. But that takes a little explanation.

Famous as Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring remains, few people remember now that the book didn't just decry the poisoning-by-pollution of eagles and songbirds; much of it was also devoted to the evidence, fairly irrefutable even then, that cancer rates were rising as a result of environmental contamination. It was this point that prompted the chemical industry to launch a full-scale anti-Carson campaign, and galvanized the then-nascent environmental movement.

As it happened, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer midway through writing the book. But she was careful never to talk about that in public, partly anticipating that the fact would be used against her, and partly respecting the taboos of the day. One of the essays in Steingraber's book is devoted to Carson's never-before-published letters to friends, which show a woman grappling in utter privacy with the terror of her disease.

That, of course, has changed. "Now," Steingraber notes, "one's personal struggle is entirely out there. Women appear on talk shows and write books and hold dress balls and races for the cure and bake sales. There's a whole woman-telling-her-own-personal-story genre, and it's a very mythical narrative. You descend into the hell of treatment, and then you either emerge as a survivor or as a martyr. I like to make fun of it, but it's broken the silence--and that's good.

"But the irony is that at the same time the personal struggle has come forward, the public struggle is now in the shadows. Pesticide use has doubled since Silent Spring, and I don't hear people talking about that on talk shows. So Rachel Carson was able to talk about what's happening to the world, but not about herself. And now everyone talks about themselves in this sort of confessional way, but we can't talk collectively about what's happening with the environment and carcinogens."

What's happening, by Steingraber's lights, is not good news. Only 1 percent of industrial chemicals has ever been tested for carcinogenic properties, she notes. Of those that have been examined and found guilty--like DDT--only a few have been banned in the U.S.; and even these are still shipped by the ton each year from American ports to the developing world. Meanwhile cancer rates continue their almost century-long rise, and the cancers increasing most rapidly--including those of the breast, the prostate, the uterus, and the skin--are those most likely to be linked to pollution.

There are soft spots in Living Downstream, as there are whenever authors write about something they know too well. In places, Steingraber uses elaborate scene-setting to state the obvious, or clutters a lucid observation with weighty metaphors. But there are also some of the best lay explanations of cancer science I've read, set out in a coolly passionate prose that juxtaposes the memory of a friend's death with a critique of how cancer statistics are gathered. Either the stories or the science could probably be found elsewhere, sometimes in more detail. But I haven't seen a book that joins the two and makes the old saw about the personal and the political come so starkly alive.

Steingraber will read Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Amazon Bookstore, 1612 Harmon Pl., Mpls.; call 338-6560.

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