Barbara Schlachter’s op ed May 21, 2015

Climate change and cancer share a few surprising similarities

Earth Day and Mother’s Day have come and gone. We can forget about our Mother the Earth for almost a year, if we choose. This year’s observances have been extremely poignant for me. When you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you do not automatically assume you will have many more years to celebrate your relationship to our Mother Earth, or your children.

I continue insofar as I am able to be active in action related to climate change, and it has given me pause to realize how cancer and our runaway reliance on fossil fuels are so similar to each other. Cancer is, by definition, cells that multiply against the best interests of their host. They threaten to take over and destroy if not stopped. In spite of other ways we can provide energy to our world, carbon emissions continue to rise, even with the knowledge that their continued proliferation will result in temperatures that will no longer be conducive to many forms of life, including human life. Capitalism and corporate control of our government almost make it impossible to stop the continuation of our mining, transporting and burning every last bit of carbon in the earth, without consideration for what happens next. Globalization and the fossil fuel industry’s heavy influence have put most decisions out of the control of the people most affected by them.

When I received my diagnosis, I was shocked. But thank God, surgery and treatment were offered to me. I am hopeful that they will result in an extended stay on this earth, and so I have endured and will endure whatever it takes for this possibility. If this cancer had asked if it could spread through my abdomen, you can bet I would have said an emphatic “No.” Yet here we are in Iowa with the possibility of the Bakken pipeline cutting diagonally through our precious state, looking somewhat like the weird scar on my abdomen, and we have to go through a long process of protest with no guarantee that it will not be built. It would mean 570,000 barrels of flammable crude oil running through Iowa every day, compromising our soil and our streams.

I wish someone had told me that if you have breast cancer, you have greater odds of getting ovarian cancer. I wish I had been told by my breast oncologist and my primary care physician to watch for certain signs. I wasn’t. I can claim ignorance and bad luck, as one of them put it. But none of us can claim we didn’t know what we were doing to our atmosphere and what would happen if we continued to do it.

Joanna Macy refers to Robert Jay Lifton, the psychiatrist who pioneered the study of the psychological effects of nuclear bombs. The refusal to acknowledge or respond to actual or impending disaster is “part of the disease of our time. … It divorces our mental calculations from our intuitive, emotional, and biological imbeddedness in the matrix of life. That split allows us passively to acquiesce in the preparations for our own demise.”

The words “climate change” have been disallowed in several states, giving it the status of “the C-word,” like cancer used to be when polite people didn’t talk about it or admit to having it. George Marshall, in “Don’t Even Think About It,” refers to Seth Godin, a communications expert who wonders whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer … might produce more alarm.”

My alarm resulted in action. Hopefully when you read this, I will be halfway through six chemotherapy treatments. The chemo drugs I receive are paclitaxel and carboplatin. They are referred to by those in the trade as “carbotax.” That is pretty ironic considering I have been working for the past four years for Congress to pass a fee and dividend on carbon, often referred to as a “carbontax.” “Make my body a prayerstick for the world,” to quote Meinard Craighead.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Schlachter is a co-founder of 100 Grannies for a Livable Future and a member of the Iowa City Climate Advocates, who are working with Citizens Climate Lobby to pass a fee and dividend on carbon.

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