Speech to City of Hope, NY, 6/8/23
Last summer, I was diagnosed with Low-grade B cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and began chemotherapy at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, CA.
This was not my first encounter with cancer. I’d had breast cancer a number of years prior which was treated with radiation and then a full mastectomy.
But this was my first time with chemotherapy and I anticipated my hair falling out and so I made it public. I was very impressed with the entire chemotherapy process…how my oncologist, Dr Carol Nishikubo, adjusted the doses if I had a reaction and sent me home with everything I needed to avoid nausea and pain. My hair never fell out
I’d never given much thought to cancer research before this, but now I realized how much progress has been made over the years due to research and I am very grateful. I suffered very little with the chemo and, my cancer went into remission after 3 treatments.
I have never given a speech at the behest of a hospital or any medical institution in my life, but I’m here today because my cancer experience has made me grateful; and because City of Hope is a ‘comprehensive cancer center’, which is the highest recognition bestowed by the National Cancer Institute; it’s also a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network; and because, decades ago, City of Hope saved my dear friend, the music genius Quincy Jones, from brain cancer.
But I’m also here as a climate activist and I’d like for a moment to talk about the connection between cancer and the environment.
During my chemotherapy, as I said, I was anticipating, actually hoping, that my hair would fall out and then, given all the new real estate that would become available, I was going to tattoo “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” on one side of my bald head and “WAKE UP” on the other. I would become a walking billboard in the fight to avoid catastrophe.
But a friend who is a cancer activist told me that might not be a good idea. She told me that the cancer community doesn’t like to be mixed up in other issues. Hmmm. That gave me pause. And that’s also why, when City of Hope invited me to speak today, I decided to accept.
I was born in 1937. Cancer was extremely rare during my growing up…it was considered a horrific, mysterious disease whose name we only dared whisper.
By the 70s, cancer was becoming way too common and that’s when President Nixon launched the War on Cancer. The 70s were also when Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and I’ve always wondered if this was because he saw the connection between what he wanted to protect the environment from and the cancer he wanted to protect people from.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if Nixon was the president who first made this connection?
Today, of course, scientists know beyond a doubt that that cancer-causing chemicals and emissions are everywhere in our environment, the majority of them originate from fossil fuels…either in the carbon emissions from burning oil, gas and coal or from the chemicals and plastics and fertilizer that we refine fossil fuels into.
Since Nixon’s War on Cancer in the 70s, the U.S. has spent more than $90 billion on cancer research, almost all of it spent on detection and treatment. Yet Cancer is epidemic today. All of us have either have it, had it, or know someone close who has it. One in three men and one in four women will get cancer in their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society.
In a 2021 review of studies by the World Health Organization researchers found that people who live near oil and gas drilling are at far greater risk of developing cancer. Here’s a hard-to-believe story related to that: Last fall, a decade of protests, petitioning and lobbying, California’s Governor Newsom finally signed a bill, SB 1137, creating 3200ft health and safety buffers between oil wells and communities where people work, play and pray.
Within weeks, Big Oil began an effort in which they spent $20 million to get a referendum on the 2024 ballot to keep this life-saving bill from being enacted. They got folks to sign by telling them that if the bill signed by Newsom passed it would make people in those communities sick and cause gas prices to go up. Total lies. And we’ve heard they’re planning to spend $100 million more to ensure they win…$100 million to defeat a bill that would have protected residents of those communities…largely people of color, poor and indigenous people with little power to fight off big oil themselves. Shouldn’t California’s Healthcare System be working with these communities to defeat Big Oil’s efforts and help protect the health of these people.
Almost a million Californians live within dangerous proximity to oil wells and refineries. And in the limbo between now and when it’s decided in Nov 2024, the governor has already approved or allowed to be approved 600 new oil wells inside the very buffer zones he just signed into law. It’s unconscionable and variations of this attack on Democracy will become a nationwide problem if we don’t put a stop to it in California.
Besides cancer, by the way, the chemicals in the air that these communities and others are breathing are also linked to learning disabilities, birth defects, asthma, immune disfunction, Parkinson’s Disease, endometriosis and neurological decline.
The National Cancer Institute estimated the costs of this toxic pollution in 2020 alone, to be more than $160 billion dollars. Cancer has become a major pink ribbon industry. But over the years, the healthcare system seems to have gone from trying to prevent cancer to learning to live with it.
This is not what should be happening… for myriad reasons. As a climate activist who is also a cancer survivor, I have to ask why isn’t the entire cancer community — hospitals, research centers and survivors — up in arms about what fossil fuels are doing to us, not just to our families and friends, but to our planet and our future?
I’m sure you are all aware that burning fossil fuels is primarily what’s driving the climate crisis. And the climate crisis itself threatens the health of billions of people worldwide, not just because of the toxic chemicals involved or because of the extreme weather events, fires, droughts and floods that kill people, but also because of the new viruses that are being released as ecosystems are being destroyed and animal viruses are being transmitted to humans as was the case with Covid, and because of the disease-carrying vectors like mosquitos, ticks, etc that are migrating to new, unsuspecting regions due to warming weather. And our health care system is so not prepared for what’s coming.
So, I ask you, why not rise up against this massive attack on America’s health? Why, instead, have the 4 big healthcare pension funds in the U.S. — the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, HCA Healthcare and Ascension Health –invested more than $4 and a half billion dollars in fossil fuel companies? Is this not a Faustian bargain that violates the Hippocratic oath: First, Do No Harm? The healthcare system investing in the very companies that are making us sick and killing us? How can this be?
In learning more about this deadly paradox, I’ve discovered that the United States healthcare system is itself responsible for almost 9% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is roughly the equivalent of the annual emissions of over 125 coal-fired power plants and it’s because of the systems’ reliance on fossil fuels to run their facilities and their equipment, the petrochemical plastics used to make their devices, the anesthetic gases they use in the operating room, the food and drugs they purchase, and the fossil fuel-based transportation they use to get themselves and their patients to and from their hospitals.
But here’s the good news: The Health community—led usually by its nurses– has made big changes before. When they learned that medical waste incinerators were the largest source of cancer-causing dioxin emissions in the United States, more than 4,500 incinerators were closed and hospitals learned how to reduce their waste, reuse and recycle what they could, and use safer waste treatment technologies to deal with infectious waste.
And when it was proven that smoking caused cancer, the healthcare industry developed programs to help us quit and helped persuade young people to not smoke. They also banned smoking from hospitals.
When the system learned that broken mercury thermometers were contributing to dangerous mercury levels in water and fish and ultimately our bodies, the health sector phased out mercury thermometers and found safer alternatives, not only in our country but all around the world.
Already, over 1000 US hospitals that have committed to net zero emissions and thousands more around the world are on the same path. Over 60 governments have committed to design low carbon and climate-resilient health systems, including our own government. But we have to make them do it and that’s where the City of Hope comes in. They’re an influencer.
Doctors and nurses are stepping up as leaders and advocates for climate action. When I was organizing my climate-focused rallies called Fire Drill Fridays in DC, an organization called Alliance for Nurses for a Healthy Environment joined me in large numbers at a capitol rally and then led the march to the Senate office building to sit in and protest the previous administration’s climate denial.
This is as it should be. The healthcare community and hospitals in particular should lead the rest of our society in addressing this intersectional climate and health crisis, which the World Health Organization calls “the greatest public health threat we face on the planet”.
Things are too dire, the window of opportunity to do what science is demanding is closing too rapidly now for us all to remain in our particular silos—health people here, economists over here, feminists over here, environmentalists there. We need to join forces in a common cause…reduce cancer and other diseases, phase out fossil fuels and make our healthcare system, as a whole, more resilient in the face of extreme weather, fires and flooding.
During Superstorm Sandy, many NY hospitals had to be evacuated just when they were most needed. Some stored their equipment in the basements and were badly incapacitated.
So how about this: Start to run hospitals on renewable energy, don’t keep essential equipment in basements, buy food and supplies from local sources to reduce carbon from transportation emissions.
Doing these suggested things would also help the hospitals’ communities by supporting local, sustainable development, reducing single use plastics, eliminating dangerous anesthetic gases, turns out there are safe alternatives; Buying more local and sustainable food for patients and employees, electrifying the fleets, moving to more telemedicine, and wasting less drugs and other supplies.
Healthcare is 18% of the entire US economy, think of the impact you can have if you committed to these renovations. It would be life changing. Literally. And much more so if you also joined in the efforts to protect vulnerable communities from fossil fuel poisoning. It’s called environmental justice.
Health and justice should make good bedfellows, don’t you think? And doing these things also means helping to save our planet.
As cancer spreads and the climate crisis worsens, more people are looking to the healthcare community to move from solely researching and treating chronic illnesses like cancer, asthma, diabetes and stroke, to addressing prevention by leading our society in kicking our addiction to fossil fuels and toxic chemicals.
And, as I just said, that can start right in your own buildings and operations, your supply chains and pension funds. And perhaps the annual Race for the Cure can be reconceived as the Race for Prevention?
Climate smart healthcare is preventative medicine on a grand scale. I mean, think about it: We can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.
I wanted to say these things here today because City of Hope is one of the most prestigious Cancer Hospitals in the world. You can become the leader in this new vision of what healthcare can and should be and inspire the rest of the cancer establishment to do the same.
I hope we can move forward on this together, climate and health united, committed to “doing no harm.” It’s time the healthcare community refocused its efforts on preventing cancer by making our communities healthier and safer places to live. It’s time they modeled the transformation to an economy where health and equity are core to their operating principles, an economy that is not reliant on fossil fuels?