Poisoned Land, Poisoned Bodies

Angelina stood on the solid, familiar earth and looked up. The cliff extended high into the sky, until the sun broke just over its edge. With trepidation, she lifted one foot off the ground and placed it tenderly onto a rocky surface. She breathed in and out. Leaning her weight forward and onto her toes, she pushed up and away from the ground. Gripping onto the rock’s crevices with her fingers, she placed her next foot onto another small indent. Her muscles contracted and relaxed. Her ligaments stretched. Her eyes focused. One calculated move and leap of faith at a time, her body started to ascend the rock’s face.  

Just one year earlier, Angelina lay in a sterile, white hospital bed, monitors clicking and whirring by her head. The body that had run around softball fields, walked down Fifth Avenue, and lain on the beach was breaking down. Non-Hodgkin’s B-Cell Lymphoma, or Bone Lymphoma, invaded what should have been a healthy 19-year-old body. The cancer was strong enough to fracture her right femur. If it were to have persisted a little further, completely breaking the bone – she could have lost her leg. 

But a year later, rock climbing for the first time ever, she faced a route up New River Gorge in West Virginia and her body was strong. She reached her arm up, her fingertips desperately searching for a handhold. She froze. The muscles in her forearms pulled tight and she was stuck, in need of retreat. She called for help and was guided down. When her feet hit solid ground, doubts started to flood her mind. Why did she think she could do this? How would she survive climbing for an entire week?  

She looked over at Brad. He glanced back and just said, “So, you ready to go again?!” 

Brad Ludden, a professional kayaker, founded First Descents in Denver, Colorado after watching his aunt’s experience with cancer when he was a child. The organization provides free outdoor adventure programming all over the country to young adults who have been impacted by cancer or other serious illnesses. While doing some research during her treatment, Angelina happened upon the non-profit online. In a rush of excitement and nervousness she registered, ready for an adventure but unsure of what to expect.  

When she came down from her first rock climbing attempt, Brad hadn’t asked her how she was feeling; he just knew that she was capable of doing more. Nobody had trusted Angelina’s strength that much in a long time.  

She took a deep breath, exhausted, but her peers were cheering her on, surrounding her with enthusiasm. So, she gathered what little energy remained in her limbs and approached the rock wall again.  

We got the call on my last day of college while my mom and Angelina were helping me move out. My sister’s tests came back: she had cancer and needed to report to the hospital the next day to start treatment. We numbly finished packing my belongings into boxes. I tried my best to say goodbye to my roommates, pretending as if everything was normal. I moved from my dorm room, to one night at my parents’ house, to a couch in the cancer ward. Angelina began to endure 96-hour continuous cycles of chemotherapy, but there was nothing I could do to help except be a witness and a sister. We used humor as a distraction, making slightly inappropriate jokes about drugs and chemo brain, and that made us feel better. But the reality of the situation still hung in the air.  

When Angelina was diagnosed, her doctor told her, “It wasn’t anything you did or didn’t do,” trying to comfort her. “It was something in the environment, something that you were exposed to. It changed your genes.” She felt relief in the fact that she hadn’t done anything wrong. A little later though, her thoughts became more complicated. What was the “something” in the air, water, or soil that did this? Why had it impacted her? How could it have happened?  

And so, sitting up on the white hospital bed that felt nothing like her own, Angelina took to the internet and looked for answers. She scoured articles on chemicals in cosmetics, contaminants in groundwater, and hazardous molecules in the air, growing paranoid with the realization of how many toxins surround her daily. She started making her own toothpaste and lotions. The rest of our family caught the paranoia too. Our mom made her own chemical free laundry detergent. I started switching all my makeup to brands which only used natural ingredients.  

Angelina tried to control the few things in her life that she could, eliminating what carcinogens she could easily find in her routine. But as she cut back on the chemicals in her soap, other chemicals rushed into her body from the bags of chemotherapy. Her memory of that time is vivid. “I saw my hair fall out, the color drain from my face, the nausea builds in my stomach, and my energy dissipate. I kept imagining the day I would have my body back from the doctors, look like myself, and no longer be filled with chemicals.” 

When Angelina finally stepped out of the hospital after her last round of chemo, she looked up, not at the ceiling of fluorescent lights she had become so familiar with after six months, but at the blue sky – and then her healing really began.  

~

Today my sister works as a Program Coordinator for that same non-profit that gave her the opportunity to rock climb in West Virginia. Angelina climbs boulders, kayaks down rapids, hikes above 19,000 feet, and helps other young people overcoming serious illnesses do the same. Meanwhile, I sit far away at home in comfortable chairs reading books, being lazy, and not paying too much attention to the natural world around me. I love hiking and grew up on a farm playing in the mud. But I don’t feel nature in my bones – it isn’t an integral part of my identity. My sister, however, wasn’t given the choice to ignore the environment around her, or its power to shape human lives, because it almost took hers away. Angelina took that realization and reclaimed it.  

Through her work, she talks to others every day who have been diagnosed with cancer, learning their unique stories. The people she works with have cancers or illnesses caused by a host of known or unknown factors, some related to the environment, and others not. Each person is motivated to travel to the rivers of Oregon or the beaches of North Carolina on her programs for different reasons: healing, adventure, exercise, or ambition. The stories of people whose lives have been touched by cancer and whose lives have been touched by nature are legion. 

For some people, the sun is the cause of their cancer. For others, it’s polluted groundwater. For those who lived down the street from a coal plant – the air might be the source of their illness. Every story is different.  

Steven Walters of Hays, Kansas was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2018 caused by sun exposure. He’s spent much of his life outdoors hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather. Two months before he was diagnosed, his father passed away from pancreatic cancer. Their relationship had been built in the grasslands of central Kansas, in pursuit of pheasant and quail. “It’s where we would heal and rejuvenate our minds and energy. We were at our best when we were hunting together, smiling, laughing, bullshitting,” he explains. When Steven’s father passed away, he lost his desire to hunt, and then his cancer treatments weakened him physically. He finished treatment six months ago and is navigating his relationship with the natural world. “I find great strength and healing in being outdoors, but I am also reminded of my physical limitations and that my dad isn’t there. The memories are both strengthening and demoralizing…I guess if that’s possible,” he told me. 

Tom O’Brien of Plainview, New York had a malignant tumor removed from his kidney after being diagnosed in 2018. The exact cause can’t be discerned, but he believes known carcinogens in his local water supply to be a contributing factor – and it makes him mad. He blames people who are destroying the earth for profit. Tom finds it deplorable that a country as developed as the U.S. is still struggling with clean water and he wishes there were more people doing something about it. Nature brings him catharsis, “I’m a different person on a trail than I am in New York City. I like who I am better, I love the pace,” he says. 

Claire Eckstrom of Denver, Colorado was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 23—only months after her childhood neighbor was diagnosed with the same disease. Both of their homes in upstate New York were close to a coal burning power plant. Arsenic, a byproduct of many coal plants, is a confirmed cause of thyroid cancer. Claire suspects they were exposed to arsenic through chemical runoff in their homes’ well water. Hoping to rediscover her connection with nature which crumbled after her diagnosis, Claire moved to Colorado from New York City after her treatment stabilized. “Five years later I can finally say that I have realized a new life – one where nature plays a large role in my health, relationships, and happiness,” she says. She has a new awareness of harmful exposure to carcinogens and, though it is all overwhelming, nature provides a welcome respite.  

I listen to my sister’s story, to the stories of the people she has spent time with, and there always seems to be the moment where the people and the environment are ripped apart. People who used to run in the rain and roll in the mud are taken away to hospital beds far away from fresh air and muddy feet. They grapple with big questions about life and death and the role that the Earth plays in their story. For many of them, they confront the human actions that mutated the environment in ways that caused them harm. For others, it’s harder to find blame in people, they simply enjoyed being outside in the sun or drinking a glass of cool water, never thinking they would later regret it. Then they have to figure out how to reconcile with the natural world again. Toxins put into the environment poison human bodies, which are then healed with even more toxic chemicals. Damaged forests become refuge for those damaged bodies. A cycle forms between people and the environment, pain and comfort.  

Angelina has been in remission for five years now but cancer’s impacts on her life can’t be easily erased. She has scars that require continuous healing – continuous remembrance. Her body will never be the same and neither will her perception of the environment around her while the rest of us have the privilege of not having to think about it.  

My sister put it best: “Learning that my cancer was caused by environmental factors showed me the parallels between my body and the Earth. Just like my relationship with my body can be toxic, our relationship with the Earth can be toxic. The consequences are similar. When will we realize that poisoned land means poisoned bodies?” 

One Comment

  1. Krista, so beautifully written!!!

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