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The mum who has come through breast cancer and the researcher at QUB who have joined forces to highlight concerns over chemicals in everyday products

Jacquie Loughrey, from Londonderry, tells Stephanie Bell why she believes the work of Dr Lisa Connolly is vitally important when it comes to the prevention of cancer

Exploring whether the chemicals in the food we eat and the personal hygiene products we use could be contributing to soaring cancer rates has become the mission of two local women.

And it is because of their mutual passion for the subject — albeit for very different reasons — that the two women have now forged a close friendship.

Jacquie Loughrey (56), a mum-of-two from Londonderry, faced and survived her own cancer journey, just one year after her mother died of the same illness.

Jacquie has since left no stone unturned in her mission to find out why her family faced such devastation and to help and advise others on taking preventative measures.

Convinced that chemicals in our food are contributing to the fact that one in two of us will face a cancer diagnosis she has toured the province giving talks on preventative measures.

Her dedication to this journey has seen her cross paths with Dr Lisa Connolly, a leading academic at Queen’s University Belfast in Toxin Food Safety and an expert in Biossay Analysis of Endocrine Disruptors.

Dr Connolly is leading a new £3.5m global research project aimed at helping to reduce the impact of chemicals on long-term health.

She wants to establish if chemicals such as natural fungal toxins that can contaminate the food chain and synthetic chemicals such as pesticides are creating potentially dangerous mixtures with our natural hormones and causing illnesses such as cancer, obesity, diabetes or infertility.

With their joint passion for the issue it was inevitable that the two women would cross paths.

Jacquie recently invited Dr Connolly to speak at an event in Derry organised by the Pink Ladies Cancer Support Group to mark World Cancer Day 2018 and reciprocally Dr Connolly invited Jacquie to visit the world leading Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s last month.

Jacquie, who is education prevention office for the Pink Ladies charity, has an inspirational story to tell as she has turned a personal tragedy into a crusade to help prevent others from facing a cancer diagnosis.

Married to Pat, she is mum to Jack (25) and Gavin (21). She was inspired to research the causes of cancer after the devastation of her mum Margaret’s death and then her own battle with the disease just over a year later.

“The need to do everything I could to stay alive for my family was overwhelming,” she says.

“I spent all my time researching to make me stronger and came across a study by the World Health Organisation in 2013 regarding Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).

“It changed my outlook entirely. I made it my business to read all I could get my hands on about EDCs.

“I followed every reputable organisation that told the facts and the science.

“I have become very interested in the science much to my family’s amusement as I was hopeless at science and maths at school. I walk the walk and put together my findings for the Pink Ladies and Pink Panthers charity.”

EDCs are mostly man-made, found in various materials such as pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food, and personal care products.

They have been suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in males and females; increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, as well as changes in immune function.

Human exposure to EDCs occurs via ingestion of food, dust and water, via inhalation of gases and particles in the air, and through the skin.

Jacquie has endured a lot of heartache as a result of cancer casting its cruel shadow over her family.

Her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. She underwent radiotherapy in Belfast for five weeks and recovered only for it to return five years later, having spread to her liver and lungs.

This time she didn’t get a chance to fight it and passed away just six weeks after it was discovered in April 2013.

Just over a year later in September 2014, Jacquie went for a routine mammogram and was horrified to be told she had breast cancer.

She recalls: “I was recalled into the little room where I had sat holding mum’s hand to be told by the same consultant and breast care nurse that I had breast cancer.

“I was stunned. I don’t really remember much but travelling home in the car, thoughts of my children witnessing anything like my mum’s death nearly knocked me off my feet.

“Somehow, though, that thought never entered my head again as that night I vowed it would not take my life.

“It was a small tumour which I had removed and there was nothing in my lymph nodes. I had five weeks’ radiotherapy. My cancer diagnosis has made me realise that nothing is more precious than your health and love from your family.”

It was after her diagnosis that she began to educate herself on the risk of cancer and was shocked by what she found.

“I was astounded to see there are 55,000 new cases per year in the UK. Women being diagnosed are getting younger, with under-50s now presenting more and more,” says Jacquie.

“I then looked at how much was spent on research and treatment in the UK and could not believe that only 5% of the national cancer budget was spent on educating on prevention.

“To me that made no sense as I could see that the NHS is struggling to meet demand. At the moment there is nothing in primary prevention on cancer that says we can be affected by environmental toxins and children in the womb are especially vulnerable.

“I want to change that and I want to see a public health leaflet warning pregnant women in particular of the dangers.”

Through the Pink Ladies and Pink Panthers, which her mum was also a member of, she has been dedicated to prevention, not just for herself but for others.

The charity started in 2005 as a result of a growing number of women in the Bogside and Brandywell areas of Derry presenting with breast cancer.

Jacquie says: “I held prevention awareness sessions for the groups and helped them to find affordable alternatives to the products that make us unwell.

“Word is getting about and I have been invited into schools to present my findings. I am passionate that we are looking at cancer from the wrong direction.

“We should be adopting a precautionary principle around the scientific findings and err on the side of caution rather than behave as in the bad old days when we knew the dangers of tobacco, mercury, lead, and now sugar, but did nothing until it was too late.”

It was last year when she came across Dr Connolly and immediately recognised a kindred spirit.

Jacquie says: “One day last year, I turned on BBC Newsline and saw Dr Lisa Connolly talking about EDCs and their dangers in personal health products and food.

“I was delighted that a person in Northern Ireland was taking an interest and was speaking out about research she was involved in.

“I quickly checked out her web page and Facebook page for more detail.

“On World Cancer Day last year I delivered my first presentation on Reducing Your Risk. That day I said that next year I wanted my hero Dr Lisa Connolly to tell everyone about her research and I was delighted she agreed to talk at this year’s event.”

Jacqueline adds: “She really is speaking our language and when we met up it was like we had known each other for years.

“Her research is hopefully going to give us the information we need to establish links between the cocktail of chemicals we are exposed to everyday and their health implications.”

Research project aims to cut impact of chemicals on our health

Dr Lisa Connolly (48), who lives in Newtownards, hopes to reduce the impact of chemicals on long term health with her new research project.

The Marie Curie Innovative Training Network project known as Protected started in January 2017 and will take four years to complete.

It is a global study involving 13 organisations across nine countries and aims to train a new generation of expert researchers in this area.

Lisa got interested in the link between chemicals and health while studying for her PHD in cancer research treatment and diagnostic tools.

At Queen’s she first specialised in food safety which led to an interest in cancer prevention.

She says: “We know some chemicals can make cells become unhealthy and lead to cancer and I realised it would be beneficial to look at what causes cancer and develop strategies to prevent us being exposed to major chemicals.

“I don’t believe all chemicals are bad, if we didn’t have pesticides we couldn’t feed the world. What we need to know is what chemicals are safe to use.”

One link her research has proved is the seepage of dangerous chemicals from plastic when heated and Lisa advises that water bottles left in the sun should be discarded and plastics never put in a microwave.

Lisa says the current research is extremely prestigious and will help put Queen’s University on the map as a world leader in this area.

She is delighted that Jacquie has contacted her and adds: “It is one of the reasons why I am doing this type of research and public engagement for Queen’s is very important.

“Jacquie is pioneering in what she is doing and her interest endorses our research and shows it is having a positive impact on the public.”

Jacquie’s tips on cancer prevention

Avoid:

BPA/F/S Bisphenol A, F, S — found in plastic water bottles, some tin cans, till receipts, food packaging.

Discard old plastic bottles especially if scratched. Choose stainless steel or glass for drinking. Avoid heating food in plastics especially microwaving.

Parabens: Methly-Buthyl-Ethyl-Propyl — commonly used as a preservative in many skincare and cosmetic products. Minimise use of these products and look for brands that have no parabens.

Phthalates especially Diethyl in fragrances/Hairsprays — a group of chemicals used as plasticisers in PVC and in many other products. Can be found in furnishings, toys and personal care products. Are known as a hormone disruptor that can affect developmental and reproductive functions. Look for products that say no phthlates.

Aluminium Salts — found in deodorant and antiperspirants. Look for no aluminium brands.

Food:

Look for organic fruit and vegetables where possible. Wash fruit thoroughly, preferably in a solution of bicarbonate of soda and white wine vinegar (with a slice of orange to get rid of vinegar taste!).

Scrub vegetables with a wire brush.

Cookware:

Per- and poly- fluorocarbons (PFCS) — used as non stick coatings or breathable coatings, are a large group of chemicals, a few of which are in the process of being restricted by the EU. There is evidence that some PFCS can disrupt the action of the thyroid hormone. PFCs are very persistent in the environment and many can accumulate in our bodies. Choose PFOA free cookware and PFC free clothing,  especially avoid for children.

Protecting Baby:

Thoroughly research any product/brand to use on your baby or when pregnant. Look for Soil Association or ECO cert branded products and you will be assured that they contain absolutely no chemical nasties that could harm your baby in its development in the womb and throughout their life.

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