In June 2001, my niece and godchild Catherine, at 27 years of age, died. An aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma took her down in 13 months. She left behind her 18-month-old daughter, a not yet 30-year-old husband, an extended family and a network of friends who all had tried, as she had, to move heaven and earth to preserve her life.

Catherine’s death created a black hole in the fabric of the lives of those who loved her. And her death was most likely a casualty of the careless, heedless pollution of the land, water and air on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia where she lived. There, the commercial chicken industry grows, slaughters and dumps waste onto the fields and into the Chesapeake Bay. There, large commercial agriculture grows vegetables for nearby urban markets.

Catherine’s cancer and death are metaphors for what is wrong in our society. It was not until my early 40s in the 1980s that I started noticing how many people around me were dying of cancer. How many Americans, I now wonder, have to experience the kind of horrible death Catherine endured before we wake up, stop calling cancer “normal,” and insist that the poisonous practices causing cancer be stopped? Where will the tipping point come?

Catherine’s death produced a fork in the road for me. I could continue to live life as usual. Or I could realize that life is precious and sometimes much shorter than we expect, and I could answer a deep longing to return to a quieter, rural life lived closer to the earth, to its seasons, to nature. That’s how I got to Maine.

Once in Maine, and some time after I passed out at her dinner table, my neighbor recommended I read Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s book “Living Downstream.” Steingraber is a scientist (biology) and an heir to Rachael Carson, who died of lymphoma. Steingraber’s life choices have been made from the “watchful waiting” platform of one who had bladder cancer in her 20s. She studies, and now shares, what she has learned about cancer and the connections between cancer and environmental degradation.

Steingraber demonstrates that we have no comprehensive national cancer registry. The National Cancer Institute “does not attempt to record all cases of cancer in the country, but instead samples about 14 percent of the populace.” This sampling comes from five states and five specific metropolitan areas and has only been in place since 1973. Other factors further complicate this sampling: different states collect data differently, some are years behind in analysis, and the data cannot account for people who move around the country. Some states, such as Vermont, not in the NCI registry, have only had cancer registries since 1992.

Regardless of this vexed statistical terrain, Steingraber said it is possible to determine that the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991, that “40 percent of us … will contract the disease sometime within our lifespans, and that lymphoma is one of the cancers that has escalated over the past 20 years. Indeed, the cancer that killed Catherine, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is one of three cancers ascending most swiftly in the United States, she said, tripling since 1950. Lymphomas are consistently associated with the phenoxy pesticides and herbicides, which are used widely on crops, lawns, gardens, timber stands, and golf courses. And lymphomas occur in higher rates in agricultural areas.

My mother died in July 2009 from the same type of cancer that killed Catherine. She lived in rural Georgia across the road from a young peach orchard posted with scull-and-crossbones poison signs and still reeking of chemicals many weeks after spraying occurred. Even when we walked down the road next to the orchard weeks after the spraying it drenched our clothes with the chemical odor. Steingraber explains that when a chemical is sprayed, less than 0.1 percent stays on the target; the rest, or 99.9 percent, moves into the general environment. So it is logical that lymphoma cancer rates are growing.

Now in Georgia, where once there were dozens of peach farms in every little town, only about five companies control the commercial production of peaches — which means the connection between peach growers and those who live with their poisonous practices is broken. This kind of distance is occurring all across the terrain of food as consumers, too, are distanced from the production of their food, which allows heinous practices to occur, from the spraying of poisonous chemicals, to the torture of animals, to the production of fake foods.

Steingraber traces the history of the shift from a carbohydrate-based economy to a petrochemical-based economy after World War II when the chemical industry needed a new use for stockpiled war-produced chemicals. After 1945, between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals came into common use and only 1.5 to 3 percent or 1,200 to 1,500 chemicals have ever been tested for carcinogenicity. These petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals easily interact with our bodies and, thus, interfere with our life processes. Many are soluble in fat and collect in animal tissues high in fat, like human brains, breasts, bone marrows, and livers, all of which are sites where cancer is increasing. Additionally, many of these synthetic chemicals are often not biodegradable, so they do not decay as does organic matter. But they are not static: many shed, or off-gas, the smaller, more reactive molecules from which they are made, producing new chemicals that remain largely uninvestigated, let alone monitored or regulated, according to Steingraber. Further, when burned, many of these substances can create new reactive chemicals, like dioxin, which is poisonous.

In totality, American industries and we ourselves are, every day, putting tons of chemicals into our environment without considering the implications for humans or for the earth. In the early 1990s, in Steingraber’s home state of Illinois, 54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides went onto agricultural fields annually and in 1992, Illinois industries released more than 100 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, she said. We are, Steingraber argues, “running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects” — an experiment that has had deadly consequences since the World Health Organization has concluded that at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences. Thus, cancer cells, Steingraber argues, are made, not born.

So cancer is not caused by having bad genes or not getting enough exercise. Cancer is being caused by the cocktail we have created, which includes at least the following ingredients: environmental poisons, fake and highly processed foods, the overuse and mixing of dangerous prescription drugs, and the stress of modern life.

Cancer is a creature of unregulated industries that are not held accountable for the harm they do. Cancer is the blow back from a society that puts profit ahead of people and individuals ahead of community. Cancer itself is an extremely profitable industry. Cancer is a metaphor we can and must change.

We can start by strengthening ties in our own community. Begin buying local products from those who follow sustainable practices.

Louisa Enright lives in Camden. Her discipline is cultural studies, which focuses on systems of cultural power.