Race for the Cause

A vast new study attempts to get to the bottom of Marin’s high cancer rates

By Joy Lanzendorfer

It’s becoming common knowledge that Marin County has one of the highest breast-cancer rates in the United States. Women who live there are 38 percent more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than are women in any place else in the country. Breast-cancer rates in Marin County increased 60 percent from 1991 to 1999.

And it’s not just breast cancer. Marin County has higher incidents of all types of cancer, including an alarmingly high rate of prostrate cancer. Men in Marin County are 25 percent more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than are men in other places in California.

It’s a problem that has puzzled many people. Marin County isn’t what many people think of when they imagine places with high cancer rates, like industrialized cities or the deserted towns of dust and trailers seen in Erin Brockovich.

Instead, Marin is filled with green space, set against the graceful backdrop of Mount Tamalpais. Its real estate is among the most expensive in the nation. Though it’s right beside a major city, all the icky winds from industrial plants and refineries are supposed to blow east, not north. The people who live there are more likely to be affluent, liberal, and educated, and, stereotypically speaking, those are the people who are supposed to be doing everything right when it comes to health–eating organic foods, drinking moderate amounts of wine, exercising, and loving nature (in fact, Bolinas just voted as a town to officially love nature).

So what’s the problem?

A new study by the Marin Cancer Project and UC San Francisco plans to find out.

Earlier this month, some 1,000 volunteers conducted surveys at nearly 100,000 Marin households in an effort to look at possible causes of the high cancer rate. The survey asked a range of questions looking into genetics, lifestyle choices, exposure to toxicity, environmental causes, and other factors.

“We’re looking at anything that distinguishes Marin,” says Geraldine Oliva, director of UCSF Family Health Outcomes Project. “Why Marin? Is it something about Marin the place or is it something about the people who live in Marin? Everybody has their theories, but what makes this different is the magnitude of what we’re trying to do by looking at most possible causes.”

With the survey, researchers are casting a wide net hoping to find a trend. Not only are they looking at a variety of data within Marin County, they hope to compare it to similar data from outside Marin as well. People from all over can help this effort by taking an anonymous version of the survey online at This is the first project of this scale to try to address the discrepancy of the cancer rate in Marin with that of the rest of the country.

There are many possible reasons why Marin’s cancer rates are so high. It could be due to lifestyle choices relating to diet, stress, or a number of other factors. It could be the fact that Marin has a high number of biotechnology and computer entrepreneurs, not to mention artists, all of whom work with toxic chemicals. Rumors abound of possible government dumping of radioactive waste, raising questions about what could be in Marin’s water or soil. Researchers are hoping the surveys will give them a direction for future studies.

UC San Francisco and the Marin Cancer Project also released the results of a study comparing Marin County’s demographics with 33 other California counties. Researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and cancer databases to look at cancer rates of specifically chosen counties with both similar and dissimilar demographics, such as income level, home ownership, population growth, age, and length of residence.

But the study found no strong correlation between cancer rates in counties that are either like Marin or completely unlike it. Both similar and dissimilar counties had medium, high, and low cancer rates with no clear pattern.

“We looked at demographics first because it’s easy to write breast-cancer rates off to demographics,” says Judi Shils, director of the Marin Cancer Project. “You can assume it’s because Marin has rich, white women who are not breastfeeding, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So now we’re looking at other possibilities.”

Breast cancer has been a known problem in Marin County since 1989, but it went on for years before people started searching for answers. Since Shils founded the Marin Cancer Project in 2002, public interest in the issue has skyrocketed.

“I had no idea how big the problem was until I went to a meeting on the subject,” says Shils. “Now the topic has started getting money and additional focus from the government. There has been a groundswell from the community.”

From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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