Family’s battles spur activism on prevention and causes
Ellie Wiener is a typical busy 16-year-old. The Lynnhurst teen is a junior at South High School, with countless afterschool activities, including the swim team, art and harp lessons.
However, throughout the summer and into the school year, Weiner has spent what little free time she has hard at work at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, 4604 Chicago Ave., preparing with other teens for a presentation at an Oct. 3-4 Minneapolis cancer-prevention seminar called Turning the Tides.
Weiner’s mother Barbara founded WCRC to serve women with all types of cancer through outreach programs, support groups and a library.
Ellie Wiener said she wants to educate the public about cancer — the environmental threats and ways to prevent it — because the media doesn’t talk about it, and it’s important to her generation.
"My grandmother and aunt both died of cancer and my mother is a survivor," she said. "It’s scary."
Wiener said educating other kids about cancer’s potential causes is important because kids care about prevention. However, "a lot of kids and adults don’t know about these causes," she said.
Environmental cancer prevention Ellie Wiener said she ‘s focused her education efforts on environmental cancer-prevention measures because they apply to everyone.
She said the idea started with a school project last year wherein she, along with classmates, distributed door hangers throughout their neighborhoods, listing educational information on the dangers of various lawn pesticides that contain suspected carcinogens.
"Once they get into the soil, they get into the streets and lakes; they’re harmful to people and some can cause cancer," Wiener said with a scrunched-up nose, adding that the vapors from the lawns are harmful, too.
She said she’s glad her mother knows about these threats, explaining that her family doesn’t use lawn pesticides or harsh chemical cleaning agents, and they shop at co-ops for food that is free of pesticides and herbicides. "It’s really scary to know all the things we’re eating and breathing," Ellie Wiener said.
WCRC Executive Director Ellie Emanuel said a major focus of the center’s work is environmental education, something very relevant to kids. "Most cancer is linked to the environment, and there’s something we can do about the environment," Emanuel said.
Barbara Wiener said focusing on the environment is doubly important because many people have the misconception that cancer is primarily genetic, so some people without a family history of cancer don’t give it a thought — until it happens to them.
"Only 15 percent of women with breast cancer have had a primary relative that’s had it," she said, adding that cancer diagnoses go up yearly.
Ellie Wiener said her presentation would focus on the dangers of smoking, second-hand smoke, make-up with cancer-causing chemicals and possible hazards in cafeteria foods.
While this teenager seems unusually knowledgeable and passionate about issues relating to cancer prevention, after meeting her mother, it’s apparent why.
The family connection Barbara Wiener said she cared for her mother and sister when they had cancer. She said because of that experience and her surviving thyroid cancer, she recognized a community need for resources for women with cancer.
Barbara Wiener said she started the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in 1991, bringing together other survivors to help women deal with cancer and focus on prevention because she lacked such resources when she cared for her ailing family.
Ellie Wiener said she grew up taking trips to the center, helping with mailings and fixing up the office. Barbara Wiener said she wanted to educate her children, but she became less involved with the center since getting it going because she didn’t want her kids’ lives to be all cancer.
Despite somewhat distancing Ellie and sister Jessie, 11, from immersion in the topic, Barbara Wiener said it was apparent that cancer was frequently on Ellie’s mind. Barbara Wiener smiled as she recalled receiving a Mother’s Day card from Ellie when she was 11 years old that read "Thank you for teaching me about known carcinogens."
Ellie Wiener said many of her friends whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer are concerned about cancer and want to get involved in prevention, too.
"She’s one of a whole big movement of young people worried about their future," Barbara Wiener said proudly.
Youth involvement Emanuel said WCRC does a lot of programming to educate kids and get them involved in reducing the risks of cancer.
She said the center usually has about 10 to 20 kids per year who really get involved at the center, many from surrounding neighborhoods in Southeast, but some in Southwest and in the outlying suburbs.
Emanuel said students tour schools and colleges to try and get youth excited about making choices that might improve their lives by lowering their exposure to potentially cancer-causing agents. "We really believe that the youth have to get involved because it’s their world," she said.
Emanuel said WCRC volunteers take school groups on field trips to locations of known pollution sites, such as the Hennepin County incinerator in downtown Minneapolis or Twin Cities factories.
She said youth from poorer neighborhoods have gotten especially involved in environmental efforts because that’s where many polluting plants and factories are built.
Emanuel said the group is working with policy makers and other environmentally conscious organizations to try and change public policy relating to environmental pollutants through a campaign called Preventing Harm Minnesota.
Also for outreach, the center is sponsoring their Turning the Tides III conference, which will be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, 1301 2nd Ave. S. on Friday, Oct. 3 and Saturday, Oct. 4. The conference will feature doctors and scientists speaking on cancer-prevention topics, plus the presentation by Ellie Wiener and other youth participants.