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.
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
"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).
A passionate, intelligent woman, Brenner has a wit that can be biting. She
calls Breast Cancer Awareness Month "Breast Cancer Industry Month,"
saying that it amounts to nothing more than an advertising blitz every October
by drug companies. (She's proud to point out that BCA doesn't take corporate
contributions.) Ask Brenner what makes her group different from other breast
cancer groups, and she's likely to respond, "They get money. We give them