Film Hopes to Expose the Causes of Breast Cancer
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
The camera is steady. The young woman speaks. "I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 at the age of 28.... One and a half years later, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and it was in my liver and my bones. I also had a brain tumor.... I never anticipated that I wouldn't get breast cancer again, but I always thought I'd have a little more time."
These poignant words, spoken by Jenny Mendosa, fill just two minutes of the 60 hours of film that have been shot for Rachel's Daughters, an investigative documentary on known and suspected causes of breast cancer.
Nancy Evans, a 12-year resident of Cesar Chavez Street, is coproducer of this compelling detective story, due to be released next fall. She is collaborating with Glen Park filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf, who have won Emmy and Academy awards for their documentary films Dialogues with Madwomen (1993) and In the Shadow of the Stars (1991).
As a woman living with breast cancer, Evans is also one of the subjects of the film.
Rachel's Daughters is named after environmental activist and breast cancer victim Rachel Carson, who in her 1962 book Silent Spring warned people of the dangers of pollution. The film features eight women "investigators," all living with breast cancer, who travel around the country, visiting research centers and contamination sites and challenging and interviewing top experts in the field (one of whom also has breast cancer).
A former publishing executive and medical writer, Evans first became involved in Rachel's Daughters through her role as president of Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a nonprofit organization that is a catalyst for the prevention and cure of breast cancer. She now serves as a vice president and board member.
"Around Christmas, two years ago, the Sunday Examiner magazine ran a piece on what celebrities wished for," says Evans. "Allie Light was quoted as saying she wished for a cure for breast cancer." The statement caught Evans' eye.
When she met with Light and her partner, Irving Saraf, "the chemistry was great," says Evans. "We liked each other instantly." It turned out that Light and Saraf were already planning a documentary on the causes of breast cancer.
"They told me, `We want to do a film about breast cancer because our daughter has it. She's 39,'" says Evans. "They knew that her prognosis was not good, because if you get it before 50, tumors tend to be more aggressive."
Light and Saraf had also heard about Breast Cancer Action through a neighbor in Glen Park who had a daughter with breast cancer.
"Now these daughters with breast cancer -- when there's no family history of it -- that's an unnatural disaster," says Evans, a 59-year-old mother and grandmother. "It's so hard to figure out. It's so hard on the parents. To have your child die ...that's not the way it's supposed to be."
When Evans talks about the film, her focus is on the subject, and not on any celebrity status she might stand to gain.
"We want people to use this film as an educational tool," she explains. "We must build coalitions to educate people about the link between environmental hazards and cancer, to protect ourselves and our kids."
Originally, there were seven women investigators in the film, but since Jenny Mendosa died before filming was complete (just before her 32nd birthday), an eighth woman was added. In the course of the film, which is expected to be 90 to 100 minutes long, the women interview more than 20 scientists, researchers, and physicians, asking them to describe their research into the disease.
Light found most of her investigators through the Women's Cancer Resource Center in Berkeley. She made an effort to enlist women from different backgrounds. "We want all women to be able to identify with the film," Evans points out.
Interviewer Essie Mormen is a retired vocational nurse who grew up in rural Mississippi. Lori Pascarella lost her job as a telephone lineperson after asking questions about exposure to electromagnetic fields. Carla Dalton is a licensed acupuncturist. Rachel Morello-Frosch is a doctoral student in public health. Pamela Sims-Durall worked in a law office until she was diagnosed, at which time she too lost her job. Susan Claymon, a cofounder of Breast Cancer Action, worked in marketing at the Shaklee Corporation. And, of course, there's Nancy Evans, who was diagnosed in 1991.
"Of all the women," says Evans, "Susan and I have had the greatest advantages: education, access to care, access to insurance -- all advantages of being white and in a higher socioeconomic group. But what we all have in common is that we wish it hadn't happened. We identify with each other's fears."
The women in Rachel's Daughters look at a variety of known and possible causes of breast cancer, including pesticides, hazardous waste, the nuclear industry, ionizing radiation in medicine, electromagnetic fields (non-ionizing radiation), hormones, genetic factors, and various work situations.
What they hope to find are answers -- and if they find them, says Evans, "We can say, `This is what's happening to women. Here are the culprits. Get them out of our lives so this won't happen to other women!'"
The film was shot in areas with high rates of cancer:Long Island, N.Y.; the Great Lakes area; American Indian reservations; the Utah "downwinders"; and the San Francisco Bay Area, long considered a breast cancer "hot spot."
In addition to interviews, Rachel's Daughters includes historical footage of planes spraying pesticides and doctors peddling x-ray equipment. The clips feature the frighteningly jovial, authoritative voiceovers common to educational films of the 1950s and '60s. Evans says she and the crew are also trying to find film of the "shoe machines" of the early '50s.
"Back then, the shoe stores had these tall machines. You'd look through the top and see [an x-ray of] the bones in your feet -- ostensibly to see if the shoes fit. The thing was encased in plywood at best. It was a floroscopy machine emitting radiation," says Evans. "Of course, the kids loved them."
As coproducer, Evans says, "My main job is to find money. But since this is a low-budget [$250,000] film, everyone does everything." She even drove the film's van from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C.
"You have to be a one-man band," she notes. "If we were in Hollywood, we'd have hundreds of people to help us. Instead, we have to send actors out to get lunch. It is not the glamour of Tinseltown!"
Of course, Evans, who is currently in remission from cancer, has done much more than drive the van. "I'm also pres-ent for the actual filming sessions. Then I meet with Allie and Irving to talk about what we liked or disliked about an interview. I've been the major contact with people to be interviewed, and they've been so gracious in making time for us."
She describes how the ambience of each place affects the quality of the interview. "At the National Cancer Institute, which is in this windowless building, the interviews were much stiffer and more formal than, for example, the one we did with a scientist on vacation at her childhood home. It was more relaxed and informal and interesting. It had a whole different tone.
"The process of making the film has been very illuminating," she adds. "Allie and Irving are real pros. I now know it's a lot easier to get words on paper. It's hard to get people to be clear on complex issues. Editing will be difficult. We have about 60 hours for a 90-minute film."
Light and Saraf are currently "cutting" the film -- selecting the cinematic gems and discarding the rest.
According to Evans, the filmmakers haven't decided where Rachel's Daughters will premiere, but they're leaning toward San Francisco. (Light and Saraf first showed Dialogues with Madwomen at the Castro Theater.)
She mentions that HBO and PBS have shown interest in the film. Then she reels off the many other avenues for distribution: anti-pesticide groups and health and women's organizations, for instance. This is clearly where the thrill lies for Evans.
As she says, "It is my hope that in seeing this film, people will make the link between politics and pollution and our lack of progress" in the fight against breast cancer.
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