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Breast Cancer Health Center

Getting Tough About Breast Cancer

Activist Barbara Brenner isn't content with pink ribbons, breast cancer walks, and fundraising postage stamps. She's an in-your-face fighter against the disease.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Sept. 1, 2000 -- It's mid-morning on a sunny San Francisco day, and a small band of demonstrators gathers in front of a grocery store to stage a protest against genetically engineered food.

The scene is earnest but surreal: There's a guy dressed as a can of Campbell's "Experimental Vegetable Soup" and another wearing a Frankenstein mask, a reference to the so-called "frankenfoods" produced by biotechnology companies. Young women dressed in white biohazard suits pass out flyers while a homeless person sits on a garbage can and waits for the speeches to begin.

Standing to one side, Barbara Brenner, 48, smiles patiently. With her close-cropped hair, black leather jacket, and paper cup of coffee in her hand, she might be just another working woman on her way to the office. Yet when she takes the microphone, this petite woman unleashes a righteous anger that jolts the group awake.

"What do genetically engineered foods have to do with breast cancer?" Brenner asks, calling out over the din of nearby buses and cars. "The answer is, We don't know."

As the protesters listen, Brenner methodically ticks off a list of potential problems. Compared with organic soybeans, it turns out, genetically engineered soybeans contain 40% fewer isoflavones, she says -- plant-based estrogens that studies show may be protective against breast cancer.

"The burden of proving that genetically engineered foods are safe should fall squarely on the companies that are marketing these foods. It should not be up to consumers," Brenner says, her voice rising. "To allow these foods to be marketed makes us, once again, guinea pigs in a vast, uncontrolled experiment.

"On behalf of women with and at risk for breast cancer -- which is, after all, all women -- we say no! We will be guinea pigs no longer. The interests of the public's health must be put before profits!"

The speech is typical Brenner: Equal parts science and sound bites, fueled by passion as well as intellect. It's a call to action.

Challenging the Norm

Action is certainly Brenner's credo. The executive director of a small, San Francisco-based group fittingly called Breast Cancer Action (BCA), she is making a name for herself by taking on some of breast cancer's most sacred cows, including the National Cancer Institute ("we're very concerned that [it] gets too much money"), mammography ("it's not what it's cracked up to be"), and even the breast cancer stamp (the money it raises should fund research into environmental causes, Brenner says, not only treatments).

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