"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry D. Thoreau



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The ‘eco’ Cancer Patient’s Dilemma

By Selena Randall

Nurse hangs chemotherapy drugsIts no secret that I’m an environmentalist.

I was raised to respect all life and to appreciate the world we live in. I studied biology, resources management and environmental toxicology following my interests, and I have spent a significant part of my working and volunteer life protecting people and the environment from pollution. I try to live my life thoughtfully as far as the environment is concerned.

 I’ve just come through four months of chemotherapy, an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. On about my second chemo session, once I was familiar with the routine, I found myself thinking about the disposable materials associated with the process. 

 A blood test, which was done through a portacath (which I gladly recommend to anyone out there facing this journey), involved a suite of equipment. There were single use vials, needle and tubing for blood collection, packages of sterile gloves, alcohol wipes in mixed material packaging, gauze and band-aids, single use syringes for portacath care. Some of this was clinical waste, some headed for the landfill.

Chemotherapy involved syringes and wipes as above for portacath care, needle, IV pouches and tubing, much of which was headed for the landfill.

At home, I had prescription medications in blister packs, as well as pills in bottles from the pharmacy. I did ask the pharmacist about their recycling procedures, and was disappointed to hear they are not allowed to reuse pill bottles even for the same patient with the same medication. I had pre-filled single use plastic syringes in individual mixed material packaging for self injection, with alcohol swabs, gauze pads and band-aids to support that task. The syringes went back to the clinic for clinical disposal. The rest went into the garbage, and over a month these increased our normal garbage production by about one-third. 

I would normally make choices about my purchases - I select unwrapped vegetables and use my own cloth bags in place of plastic, I might buy a cake from the bakery packaged in a paper bag rather than a styrofoam tray of cakes covered in plastic wrap. I buy in bulk to minimize packaging. I can choose not to buy things at all.

But in my cancer journey choice is not available to me. There are good reasons why medicine uses single use syringes, IV bags and tubing, which have replaced reusable items that needed careful cleaning and sterilization, through processes that took resources like water and energy as well as human resources. The safety of the patient and the nursing staff are paramount, especially when toxic cancer medications and blood are concerned, and maintaining safe equipment needs to be efficient and easy to achieve. The single use syringes I used at home made it simple for me to receive the exact dose I needed. And if I couldn’t remember if I’d taken my dose, I could count the remaining syringes to check. 

I wrestled with my conscience a little about the waste I was causing, but the experience reminded me about priorities and when principles are important.

There will always be times in our lives when someone else is in control of the materials used, the packaging, and the potential impact on the environment, but sometimes it is the experience that is most important.