10/24/2012 05:06 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

How My Mother and I Learned to Speak About Cancer

My mother and I recently walked together along a corridor that connects the parking garage to the main elevators of St. Francis Hospital in Peoria, Illinois. It's an ordinary walkway, and yet it holds extraordinary memories for each of us.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44. When her cancer recurred, she walked this route to her radiation treatments and chemotherapy appointments. It was 1976. She was told not to expect too much.

She remembers the walkway as a lonely place. During the years she made her weekly visits, she cannot recall ever seeing another person in there. On some days, the elevator seemed to recede endlessly before her like an unattainable mirage.

I walked this path to visit my mother during her hospitalizations, ferrying my homework back and forth over its tiled surface. I remember the walkway as a place of bad lighting. My scared teenage face stared back at me from the windows' black mirrors.

Three years later I was diagnosed with cancer myself -- bladder cancer -- and whatever discussion I might have had with my mom about the curiously depressing aspects of the parking garage walkway yielded to graver concerns. These were mostly unvoiced.

After I became a cancer patient, mom and I became mute around each other. I stopped asking about her health and rebuffed her inquiries about mine. And yet, there seemed little else to talk about.

My mother and I gradually found a language to speak about our shared experience of cancer -- but the prerequisite for that dialogue was years of good check-ups for both of us. And the birth of a social movement.

In the early 1990s, the women's breast cancer movement succeeded in breaking the silence around a disease that had been shrouded in whispers. Cancer survivors began to speak out frankly about their treatments, their altered bodies, and their fears and hopes for the future. They told their stories. In so doing, they opened up a space for conversations of all kinds -- even those between mothers and daughters.

Cancer activists also began asking questions about possible environmental links to cancer. Why were increasing numbers of children and young adults developing cancer? Why were cancer rates higher in some communities than others? How does exposure to pollutants affect cancer risk? What about pesticides used on lawns and gardens?

Emerging scientific research shows us that these questions are important ones. Over the last decade, we've learned a lot about the role of the environment in the story of cancer.

We know that small amounts of chemical contaminants can sometimes be harmful -- especially when exposures occur in early life and especially when chemical agents mimic our hormones. We know that mixtures of pollutants can have magnified effects. The cumulative impact of multiple exposures over a lifetime seems to matter.

In other words, the genes that we've inherited -- a focus of cancer research in 20th century -- don't operate in isolation. Indeed, as we now know, heredity and environment dance together. This insight has particular resonance for my mother and me. While mom and I have much in common -- we're both tall, thin, left-handed biologists -- a family history is not among the things we share.

I am her adopted daughter.

Upon hearing that environmental factors can influence cancer risk, many people ask "What can I give up?" (meat? swimming? tap water?) or what can I buy? (bottled water? air filters? vitamins?) They aspire to become the ecological equivalent of the boy in the bubble. But there are limitations to a strictly personal approach to cancer prevention.

Consider that breathing, not drinking, constitutes our main route of exposure to pollutants in tap water. This is because most of them easily evaporate. Step into the shower for ten minutes and you receive the exposure equivalent of drinking a half-gallon of tap water. In short, we are all obligated to protect public drinking water, with which we enjoy the most intimate of relationships, whether we drink it or not.

Rather attempting to turn our homes and bodies into fortresses against toxic invasion, we can demand an end to the invasion. And on this topic, silence is also beginning to break. For years, for example, the people of Peoria allowed a private company to dump hazardous chemicals -- including known carcinogens -- above the drinking water aquifer there. But when the company applied for a permit to expand, the citizenry spoke out. Leading the opposition were local physicians. During this battle, a group of them, including breast surgeons and pediatricians, invited me to St. Francis to lecture on the environmental links to cancer.

And the hospital lecture hall was, in fact, where I was headed with my mother when we found ourselves, so many years later, in the parking garage walkway. Mom and I discovered that night that we both suffered from faulty memories. The walkway is a bustling, well-lit place. As the passage to the main entrance, it could not have been entirely deserted for the three years my mother made her appointed rounds. And, at 4 p.m. -- when I paid my after-school visits here -- it could not have been dark. The sun would have been streaming in.

What is probably already obvious to you finally dawned on me: it's the experience of cancer itself, not the building architecture, that creates a tunnel of isolation and darkness.

It is a tunnel I fervently hope my own daughter -- or my son -- never has to walk. My motherly need to keep my children safe inspires my work, as a biologist and a cancer survivor, to preserve the abiding ecology of this planet, on which their lives depends.

What we love we must protect. That's what love means.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, recently published in second edition by Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the Canadian documentary film adaptation. Produced by The People's Picture Company, the film is currently screening in select North American cities and will be available on Home Video DVD this fall.