CBC’s WENDY MESLEY: On truth, television, and tackling tough health issues
By Carol Crenna
Wendy Mesley is one of Canada’s most recognized broadcast journalists. Noted for her energy and wit, Wendy hosts CBC’s flagship news program The National on Sunday evenings, and contributes to the program throughout the week. She was also the no-nonsense host of Marketplace, CBC’s prime-time investigative consumer show.
Wendy has won several awards, including three Geminis, for her skills in investigative journalism. These were never more evident than in the startling findings she revealed in her documentary Chasing the Cancer Answer completed in the midst of her own breast cancer treatments in 2005.
I spoke to Wendy about her career, cancer prevention, family and health.
CAROL: In your work with the popular investigative show Marketplace, what were you especially proud of?
WENDY MESLEY: What drove me were not necessarily stories that shut down companies – although we heard that happened a few times a year due to the show’s influence – but the “grey” issues. Only CBC allows journalists to spend time researching a story that doesn’t have an obvious villain.
For example, I produced a program about the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. It’s responsible for revealing what ingredients have been found to be carcinogenic or to cause cancer and for providing that information to governments worldwide.
We exposed that even the WHO, with its highly trusted and respected scientists, receives a lot of funding directly from the industries that it is supposed to scrutinize.
People assumed that science is “pure.” We didn’t catch anyone with a bleeding dagger in their hand, yet it made people look at the issue differently.
I like telling stories that are complicated.
CAROL: Was it difficult to wade through the information and issues?
WENDY MESLEY: Yes. Some stories took months or years to develop, not only to get the facts but to find a new angle and better strategy to tell it, even if it takes planting hidden cameras to reveal the perpetrator.
CAROL: Why did you make the Chasing the Cancer Answer documentary?
WENDY MESLEY: After I was diagnosed, I quickly moved from the “why me?” to the “why not me?” phase after a senior executive at Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation told me that cancer had just surpassed heart disease as the number one killer.
He said statistics now reveal that almost one in two people born today will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
I was shocked, and wondered why this hadn’t made headlines. The stats don’t mean that everyone diagnosed will die of it, and I’m grateful for the funding and research spent on treatment to keep people like me alive, but unfortunately we look at cancer as a chronic disease now.
The untold story is that many cancers can be prevented because they’re caused by environmental factors – things we eat, drink and breathe. Why aren’t we doing more for prevention?
It’s difficult to prove that the cause may be found by adding up the chemical culprits we’re exposed to daily; it’s easy to get products onto store shelves: it’s hard to get products off of store shelves.
Europe and the US are much more proactive in both revealing information to the public, and reformulating products so that we can still have our hair dyes and cleansers, but without questionable ingredients.
There are big issues, like breathing in benzene from car exhaust, that take big discussions and big decisions, and our society complacently discounts it with, “Doesn’t everything cause cancer?” and does nothing about it.
CAROL: What do you think may have caused your cancer?
WENDY MESLEY: I considered that I’ve been using the birth control pill for decades, and estrogen is recognized as a class one carcinogen. It’s proven that if you’re on the pill for over eight years, you increase your risk of breast cancer.
We’re not told this, and then taken off of it; instead it’s now being promoted for use to girls who aren’t even having intercourse yet, to regulate their periods.
I also discovered that the amount of alcohol that I drink, a glass of wine per day, also increases risk of breast cancer by approximately 30 per cent. You don’t read that on wine bottles.
CAROL: There’s so much to consider — even unhealthy electromagnetic frequencies in cell phones.
WENDY MESLEY: I’ve been telling that story for 15 years, and I still don’t know whether they cause cancer or other illness, but I know that the science and politics around the issue are fascinating.
CAROL: How do we weed through the misinformation?
WENDY MESLEY: There is no easy answer. Just a few years ago, the Canadian government still hadn’t made ingredient lists on personal care and cleaning products mandatory.
Now products list them, but you have to be a chemist to know which ones may be problematic unless you spend hours researching each one.
My tip: the shorter the list of ingredients, the less likely you are to expose yourself to something questionable, whether it be in food or a cleanser. And if you don’t know what it is when reading it, reconsider ingesting or breathing it.
That said, life is to be lived, so pick your poison! Like dieting, choose those few things in moderation that you can’t live without.
CAROL: Do you have a healthy lifestyle?
WENDY MESLEY: Stress is a really good way to keep weight off. In theory, I’m a big believer in exercise, but it’s difficult to find time.
Real runners laugh at me because I call myself a runner but only run for 25 minutes once or twice a week. And I go to the gym twice a month.
The rest of the time I keep fit by running around like a crazy person for work. I love windsurfing, but it’s so dependent on windy weather that it can be frustrating, especially on Lake Ontario.
My husband is a health-conscious cook, thank goodness, or we would be poisoned by my cooking. We limit meat, and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, as much local and in-season as possible.
CAROL: Being in the public eye, do you try to show others that you live a healthy lifestyle after having cancer?
CAROL: Did you grow up within a family concerned about health?
WENDY MESLEY: My mother raised me on her own, and she is an outdoorsy, athletic person. At 80, she’s still a ski instructor, hikes often, and leads cycling tours. I don’t remember eating wholesome food like fresh vegetables because she worked full-time — it was whatever she could get on the table fast.
CAROL: Has becoming a mother changed your thoughts about health?
WENDY MESLEY: Having kids sharpens the focus around health, but I know parents who are obsessed about never letting anything impure pass their children’s lips, and I want our daughter to have a normal childhood and enjoy some of the “forbidden fruits” of life. Ninety percent of the time she eats healthily.
I changed my lifestyle when I had her in that I stopped being a workaholic who thought that I always had to say “yes,” and I now take more holidays to be with her.
CAROL: What made you decide to go public about your breast cancer?
WENDY MESLEY: I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret when my hair fell out from chemotherapy, and I also knew that carcinogens was a big news story, so though I’ve never felt comfortable involving myself in stories before, I thought this one might mean something to “the sisterhood.”
I was surprised to learn how many women had breast cancer and how many were ashamed to talk about it. They felt that their employer would think they were less valuable, their husbands would think they were less attractive, or they had done something wrong and deserved to get it.
Since I’ve got a supportive family and work situation, I was in a position to talk about it.
CAROL: Was it difficult to give advice?
WENDY MESLEY: I got thousands of emails about it, and couldn’t respond to everyone, and at some point you don’t want to be considered “the cancer girl” forever. I eventually wanted to move on.
CAROL: You had two lumpectomies, chemotherapy, radiation and anti-cancer drugs. Did you do any complementary therapies?
WENDY MESLEY: No. I was told that complementary procedures can interfere with treatments so thought, “If I’m going to be putting conventional treatment poisons into my body, the last thing I want is to do something that doesn’t allow them to reach their full potential.
CAROL: Have you considered all aspects that may have caused it such as emotional stress?
WENDY MESLEY: The reading I did seems to not consider stress to be a credible cause. There is speculation, but no hard evidence.
CAROL: Do you consider your job stressful?
WENDY MESLEY: There is a lot of stress in broadcasting, but I love what I do, so most of it is good stress, a. And if I didn’t have it, I would be bored and unemployed.
I can’t imagine living without stress; having a deadline keeps me productive, and being a little hyper, I like to have 25 things going at the same time.
CAROL: Has the cancer experience changed your outlook?
WENDY MESLEY: No. People said having cancer would change me: I would slow down, never fight with my husband again, never yell at my child again… but you don’t get a personality transplant with the surgery.
You are who you are. It may have been different if I’d thought I was going to die, but I’ve decided that I’m going to live until there is further evidence to the contrary.
Original article by Carol Crenna featured in VISTA Magazine