10/29/2014 05:41 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Breast Cancer and ISIS: Beyond Surgical Strikes and Chemical Weapons

My breasts did not volunteer to be the canary in the coalmines of modern life. Neither did the Yazidis or Kurds welcome bands of ISIS into their communities. These curses came upon otherwise healthy bodies. The distressing medical options my doctors offered for addressing breast cancer and the foreign policy options offering scorched earth bombing of communities in Iraq are alarmingly similar. The dearth of options for both preventing cancer or the spread ISIS is equally troubling.

The metaphors of cancer and terrorism are easily interchangeable. Breast cancer is a terrorist organization of cells, threatening mass casualties in the rest of my body. ISIS is a cancerous growth, metastasizing at an alarming rate. But waging war on cancer and ISIS do little to address root causes or prevent the conditions that cause these terrors in the first place. The proposed Western "cures" to these curses come with the burden of added suffering.

"Are you sitting down?"

These are the words my doctor said to me through the phone line as she prepared me for the news that the three-inch mass in my breast looked like cancer on the MRI and biopsy. I imagine these same words came through the phone to President Obama from the Pentagon, announcing ISIS expansive conquests over more Iraqi villages.

Terror undermines logical thinking. With cancer and ISIS standing at the gates, it is hard to think strategically. The gut reaction is to fight, to cut, burn, poison and kill the invading insurgent cells.

We need to set fear on the shelf, stand back and take a look at the bigger picture. Preventing rather than simply responding to these curses will make us healthier and safer.

Isolating and Extracting

Surgery is one of modern medicines' finest gifts. Extracting and isolating damaged tissue from a living body without destroying the surrounding cells is sometimes necessary. The doctor's surgically removed the precancerous mass with as little damage as possible to the rest of my body.

Isolating and extracting al Qaeda after their first set of crimes and before 9/11 would have been wise. But the U.S. opposed the International Criminal Court that might have offered another way of addressing al Qaeda back then or ISIS leaders today. After 9/11, a number of strategists argued the world needed to treat the attack as a crime by responding with a criminal investigation -- a surgical extraction -- to bring a small group of people to justice. If we want a world that respects the rule of law, we have to practice using the rule of law in our efforts to stop violence. Instead, policymakers would go on to wage a worldwide war on terror. The "cure" for al Qaeda killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and destroyed most of the country of Iraq. This Iraq war sowed the seeds for a new cancerous growth called ISIS.

Cut, Burn, Poison

War is a blunt instrument. It takes a sledgehammer to already fragile societies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like whacking a hornet's nest, war stirred up even more hate and violence.

Bombing ISIS isn't going to stop the violence. Ten years of war in Iraq did not alter the underlying causes driving violence. Instead, it further destabilized not only Iraq, but the entire region. ISIS captured and now controls large amounts of U.S. weapons sent to the region. In Afghanistan, over a decade of war has seemingly strengthened the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Al Qaeda believes violence accomplishes a religious task. Likewise, many in the U.S. still hold to a similar fantasy of firepower, believing that using overwhelming force against ISIS can teach them a lesson. Mirroring al Qaeda's awful ideology, U.S. marines put up billboards that read "Its God's job to judge the terrorists. Its our job to arrange the meeting." Where is the proof that religiously-based violence is a cure for the same curse?

Despite years of trying essentially the same strategy of applying brute force on brutal opposition forces, the result is a boomerang effect. A boomerang bang. We send out violence to quell violence, only to find ever more frightening levels of violence coming back at us.

In the same way, doctors offered me a range of breast cancer treatments that all included drastic harms to my body.

After removing the precancerous mass on my right breast, my doctors told me I had a 47 percent chance of developing breast cancer in the years ahead. All the new emphasis on breast cancer detection means I have lots of company. Millions of other women have a similarly terrifying diagnosis. All the "breast cancer awareness" means that millions of women are hanging over the edge of the cancer cliff, informed by doctors that they are "pre-cancerous." Even though most of us will never in fact get breast cancer, we all live with the fear. We may never know the terrible impact this overdiagnosis has on our psyches and our quality of life. We do know for a fact that people who think they are sick are more likely to get sick. And that people who think positive thoughts about their health are more likely to survive and thrive.

Like millions of other women, I'm impacted by my diagnosis. I fear cancer -- and I'm also afraid of the medical treatments I'm being offered. The three ways the mainstream medical community deals with cancer are surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. I have no doubt that some women need these extreme treatments. But suggesting any woman with a chance of cancer take drastic treatments that cause even more problems or other forms of cancer seems highly questionable.

Just as many military forces don't keep track of civilian casualties (the U.S. has started to address this problem), doctors don't keep track of how many people die from cancer treatments versus how many die from the original cancer because it is hard to tell the difference. Each of these cancer treatments damages the body's immune system, making it ultimately weaker and more susceptible to the spread of cancer.

My doctors told me I had three options to monitor the cells considering becoming ISIS recruits in my breasts. One, I can choose to do nothing and monitor with MRIs and mammograms every six months. Mammograms expose women to carcinogenic radiation to their already vulnerable breasts. Recent large-scale research shows that mammograms do not significantly increase the chances of women surviving cancer.

The second option is to take the chemo-prevention drug Tamoxifen, manufactured by the AstraZeneca corporation that plays both sides of the equation -- making a wide range of carcinogenic chemicals causing breast cancer and then offering a sickening cure. The side effects of Tamoxifen include developing uterine cancer and deadly blood clots. So the bargain to fight breast cancer cells with Tamoxifen or other forms of chemotherapy requires risking more and greater forms of harm. I take this wicked pill every day, hoping that it prevents breast cancer while fearing it may cause further harm.

The third option the doctors offered was a double mastectomy, a preemptive strike to wipe out any tissue that might become cancerous. Women are increasingly turning to prophylactic mastectomies -- seemingly concluding that it is better to live without breasts than to live daily in fear of cancer.

Underlying Causes

The most perplexing thing about news analysis of ISIS and Breast Cancer Awareness Month is the lack of attention to what is fueling ISIS and what is causing the increase in breast cancer.

One in 7 American women will get breast cancer today, a significant increase in the rates compared to twenty years ago. Why are women all over the world suffering more and more from this disease? Why is cancer overwhelming the immune systems of so many?

The Breast Cancer Awareness Month pink ribbons are everywhere. But nowhere do they share information about the toxins that cause breast cancer like those we are exposed to from toxins leaching out of plastic water bottles or into food microwaved in plastic containers, eating bromine -- a chemical banned in Europe -- in bread and sports drinks, using toxic hair dyes, makeup and skin products, wearing poison flame retardants on our clothes and furniture and the list goes on. While any one of these toxins may not overwhelm the body, where is the research on the combined effect of daily exposure to a wide range of toxins? Why aren't we attempting to address the toxic stew we live in rather than living in constant fear of that call from the doctor asking us if we are sitting down?

There is a proliferation in "pinkwashing" as companies that claim to care about breast cancer by donning pink ribbons also produce products that are linked to cancer. This year's bizarre example of pinkwashing comes from fracking corporate giant Baker Hughes, which made pink drill bits, ironically to dig out the very toxins that are linked to cancer.

Likewise, the analysis of underlying causes of ISIS and other terrorist groups is also missing. ISIS weapons have been traced to China and the U.S. Who will be held accountable for sending massive quantities of weapons to this region, weapons that have now fallen into the hands of ISIS? Do we know what makes the ISIS ideology appealing to so many? How is the wider rift between Sunnis and Shias, and Iran and Saudi Arabia fueling the growth of ISIS? Just as with the toxins causing breast cancer, there is shockingly little public conversation of the root causes of ISIS and our own culpability in feeding its cancerous ideas.


Media analysis of ISIS and breast cancer is superficial at best, deceptive at worst. Violence and cancer are not distributed equally. Some places are far more violent than others. Some people seem to be much more vulnerable to toxins and cancer than others. How do we start to see the patterns, so we can invest in prevention and not just rely on violent solutions that are likely to also cause illness in our bodies and societies?

ISIS is not just a natural phenomena. It was created in a toxic environment steeped in a belief in violence as a redemptive force. ISIS is not a representation of Islam, just as the Ku Klux Klan is not a representation of Christianity. These are mutant forms of religion, overtaken by cancerous ideas that violence and power are divinely ordained. If we want to prevent the spread of ISIS, we have to take steps to address increase the level of resilience and health in physical and social communities to boost immunity to the temptation to join violent groups.

The fields of conflict prevention and peacebuilding take a different approach to thinking about ISIS. I work at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a professional network promoting awareness of more effective, sustainable solutions to violent conflict. Sustainable solutions to conflict must address root causes and do no harm. Peacebuilding experts warn that all too often, the cure to violence is just as bad if not worse than the original disease. Like immunologists who focus on building the body's immunity, conflict prevention and peacebuilding focus on building resilient societies where mutant cells of hate and violence bent on destruction are kept in check by powerful forces supporting tolerance, coexistence and democratic participation.

Donning a new pink ribbon patient sticker on my hospital gown, I asked for a list of lifestyle changes I could take as preventive measures to address the underlying factors contributing to cancer-like cells thriving in my breasts. I found out there is no such list.

None of my doctors or any of the Breast Cancer Awareness Month ads pointed me to the scientific research relating breast cancer prevention to sleeping 7 hours a night, exercising, or following a cancer-prevention diet filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables, probiotics like yogurt and miso soup, restricting carbohydrates and sugar, and drinking lots of green tea and water while limiting or avoiding alcohol. No one mentioned the placebo, double blind medical research on widespread iodine deficiency or told me that hundreds of doctors across the US (but not at my local hospital) are treating women with breast diseases with high doses of iodine, in part to address widespread bromine poisoning and other cancers.

Scientific research is important to assess the potential harms or benefits from any type of "natural" supplement or synthetic medicine like chemotherapy. Research on these more natural and not-at-all harmful treatments to reduce risk of breast cancer have no corporate muscle. Any of us looking for preventive options to boost breast health are left to hunt down medical research on the National Institute of Health website or seeing alternative and integrative medical doctors. No one is going to pay to advertise sleeping, eating vegetables, exercise or reducing alcohol to women fearing breast cancer.

It takes money and corporate power to move the massive amount of medical research produced each day into doctor's hands for advising patients. The pharmacology industry has put a lot of time and effort into marketing Tamoxifen and other drugs with harmful side effects to women like me. In a medical system heavily influenced by corporate profiteers, who will fund research on breast cancer prevention?

Rethinking Health and Security

Albert Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

It is illogical to think that cutting, burning and poisoning are the only solutions to addressing the evils of ISIS and breast cancer. Just as the military-industrial complex pushes billions of dollars of weapons the Pentagon itself doesn't want or need, the chemical-pharmacology industry creates both toxins causing cancer and then the medicines needed to treat the tumors they make. Before we all become paralyzed with the fear of ISIS and cancer, there is a bigger conversation we should have about our long term health and security.