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Searching for environmental causes of cancer

Ellen Parker cofounded the Silent Spring Institute in her hometown of Newton.Kristen Turechek

During her nine-year tenure as an oncology social worker at Tufts Medical Center and as the longtime head of the Social Work Oncology Group of New England, Ellen Parker said it became increasingly difficult to accept that so many women with breast cancer died from the disease. As more of her friends were diagnosed, she knew she had to act.

“I grew up in New York City, and my mother had one older friend with breast cancer,” said Parker, a psychotherapist who has a private practice in Newton, where she lives. “In Massachusetts, there were so many women diagnosed with breast cancer, so young, that it seemed crazy to me.”


In her living room in 1994, Parker and several other board members of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition cofounded the Silent Spring Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to identifying the links between pollutants and women’s health — particularly breast cancer. The name is a nod to Rachel Carson, who died of breast cancer two years after the publication of her book, “Silent Spring,” inspired an environmental movement.

Institute researchers partner with physicians, public health and community advocates, and other scientists to identify health risks associated with toxins in the home and workplace. Their research topics have included contaminants prevention in Cape Cod’s drinking water supply, carcinogenic flame retardants, and reducing exposure to plastic packaging through a diet of fresh foods.

Parker, who received the Rachel Carson Advocacy Award at Silent Spring’s recent 20th anniversary gala, said she is proud of the increased attention to research linking the incidence of cancer to environmental factors.

Despite this progress, however, she said she remains dismayed by the growing prevalence of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetimes.


“One challenge is how to help people connect to this issue without them feeling overwhelmed by it,” Parker said. “Science needs to drive change in public policy. It won’t change based on good will.”

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