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Town Hall Coalition in the News
Taking a Deeper Look at Breast Cancer
Susan Swartz
(Press Democrat, 4/1/01)

If you go into Debra Anderson's hair salon in Occidental for a pedicure, she seats you on a throne and invites you to wear a crown. It was not, then, a big leap for her to extend special TLC to her clients with cancer.

She does a client's hair for free if she's in chemotherapy and offers complimentary facials and massage because, she says, "the pampering is so needed.''

The hair stations are private enough for a good cry and there are boxes of Kleenex at the ready.

There's an information table too, with schedules of free breast cancer screening, for the benefit of all visitors. Debra is president of the Occidental Chamber of Commerce so her Looking Glass Salon gets lots of traffic.

In recent days she's added an invitation for people to add their names to a special cancer map. It's part of a project by the Town Hall Coalition, an environmental group, to track geographical information on cancer cases in Sonoma County.

Debra, mother of four, doesn't have breast cancer but she knows too many women who do.

"Suddenly I seemed to be seeing all these women with cancer and some of them pretty young, in their 30s and 40s. Two women I know, who have kids in middle school together, went in for mammograms the same week and got the same bad results. I know four women who live on the same road and three have cancer.''

When one of her best friends developed cancer, Debra decided to do more than offer sympathy.

"We need to be asking, `What was I exposed to? And where. And when?''' says Debra, who last month organized a cancer forum which spawned the information network.

"Maybe there is some way to connect the dots,'' she says. "I don't believe cancer is simply a mythical monster that comes in to sit in your lap.''

Debra now has more than 30 clients with cancer and they often speculate about whether it could be from something in the environment. "Maybe it has to do with where you lived 10 years ago. Or before that. Who knows what you were dipping into,'' Debra asks.

She is not alone, of course, in considering links to environmental poisons, namely pesticides and toxic chemicals. TV journalist Bill Moyers asked similar questions last week when he presented the chemical industry with their own secret papers about known hazards.

Some bureaucrats have told Debra she'll scare people, and she says, "People are scared already but maybe they'll be less scared if they can get some answers.''

There's precedent in Marin County, where the public health department is mapping breast cancer cases, looking at possible environmental connections and working with the Marin Breast Cancer Watch activist group.

Marin is known for its unusually high breast cancer rates (159 women newly diagnosed each year out of every 100,000). Sonoma County's rate is lower, at 123 new cases a year out of 100,000 but higher, still, than the state average of 120.

Debra personally believes in the existence of "contaminated neighborhoods,'' but she's the first to point out she's not a scientist. Rather, she runs a hair salon where things happen, like a recent quiet celebration with one of her special customers.

Debra can remember the day more than a year ago when that client had her bad-news mammogram, also the day Debra shaved her head and then later fitted her wig. There had been a lot of medication and treatment, but now the woman and her hair were back.

Smiling into the looking glass, she told Debra, "Now, I recognize me. I never thought I'd see this person again.''

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Town Hall Coalition
6741 Sebastopol Ave. Ste. 140 Sebastopol California 95472
T: 707-824-4371 / F: 707-824-4372
E-mail: info@townhallcoalition.org