Thursday, April 19, 2007
On July 10, 40 women will begin a trek up Mount Shasta, a physical and a spiritual journey to “Climb Against the Odds” in an effort to prevent breast cancer and beat the disease. They will wear headlamps and support ropes and carry food, clothing, an ice pick and other gear in backpacks. They’ll also carry prayer flags naming cancer survivors and victims.
They’ll summit on July 11, beginning their final ascent at 12:30am, climbing almost 7,000 feet in a tough, 16-hour day. At the top, they’ll hold a ceremony for those living with breast cancer, and those who have died from it.
This will be the group’s eighth annual mountain expedition, coordinated by the prevention-oriented Breast Cancer Fund. Climbers include cancer survivors, some currently in treatment, and other women affected by cancer. Women come from all over to participate—even Budapest—and this year a Pacific Grove woman, Daya Fisch, will climb with them.
Fisch works as a massage therapist, and she’s got a master’s degree in nutrition. About five years ago she founded the Breast Health Project where she teaches other health care providers and cancer survivors a holistic approach—lymphatic breast massage and nutrition among other things—to prevent breast cancer. At the time, her best friend, Jeanne Herrick, had recently finished cancer treatment. Fisch wanted to help her friend, and, as a massage therapist, she found something she could do. “A surgeon noticed the difference in her breast tissue,” Fisch remembers. “She had more range of motion, decreased pain and swelling, and so I became the breast cancer massage therapist.” Herrick is now in remission.
A big part of what the Breast Cancer Fund does is it identifies—and advocates for the elimination of—environmental and other preventable causes of the disease. So, instead of simply focusing on finding a cure, it also promotes prevention and public policy to hold companies accountable for what they put into the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the makeup we put on our faces.
The advocacy is working. In 2005, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law two bills sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund. SB 484 brings additional scrutiny to cosmetic products and AB 929 ensures that, when getting X-rays, patients receive the lowest possible dose of radiation without compromising image quality.
“Cancer is often preventable,” Fisch says. She points to a recent study by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC-Berkeley that looked at organophosphorus (OP) pesticide exposure in about 600 pregnant Latina women in the Salinas Valley. The scientists found that these local women were receiving similar levels of the pesticides from their diet as women elsewhere in the US. It concluded that the real culprit behind the higher levels of OP pesticide in this population was exposure through air, water and soil.
An older, 2003 study by the Environmental Working Group found high levels of chemical fire retardants in the breast milk of American women. The average level of these neurotoxic chemicals found in breast milk was 75 times the average found in European mothers.
“It’s very dramatic that our breast milk is toxic,” Fisch says. “I’m going, how do we get it out? We need policy change, but that is going to happen in 100 years.”
So right now, she’s working to educate the public and health care providers. And, she says, “Soberanes is my new best friend.” Fisch hikes the Soberanes Canyon Trail at Garrapata regularly, and works the Stairmaster—with a pack on her back—in preparation for Mt. Shasta.
“If we want our kids not to face the breast cancer rates we think they’re going to be facing, we’ve got to do something,” she says. “So 40 crazy women are going to climb to the top of Mt. Shasta.”
Besides the physical requirements, Fisch has to raise $5,000 for the climb. She’s also looking for breast cancer victims and survivors. “If there are women who have had breast cancer in this county,” she says, “if I could carry a prayer flag for them, I would be honored.”
She’ll carry one for a client, Carol Laughlin, who died in November. Fisch worked with her every week for six years. “She was very spiritual, so it feels like carrying her on my back…”
Fisch stops talking and takes a bite of her breakfast. “I stopped because I would cry,” she says. She takes a breath, and finishes her thought. “It’s such an honor.”
FOR MORE ABOUT THE CLIMB AGAINST THE ODDS, visit breastcancerfund.org. For more about the breast health project, visit breasthealthproject.com. To contact fisch, e-mail her at email@example.com.