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Californians seek cause for high breast cancer rates

By Rusty Dornin

Clarke says women might be unknowingly increasing their chance of getting cancer by "not having children at all, delaying child bearing."

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SAUSILOTO, California (CNN) -- Marin County, California, seems like paradise. Just across the Golden Gate bridge, it's home to rich, beautiful, healthy people.

But a television ad paints a different picture. "People are dying in Marin County and no one seems to care," says the commerial.

These tough-to-ignore ads are part of the Marin County Cancer Project's Search for the Cause campaign.

What they're searching for is the reason the rate of breast cancer here is 45 percent higher than the national average. No one seems to know why.

Annie Fox was 29 when she got breast cancer. She died three months ago at age 35. Her fiancee, Chris Stewart, said it's tough not to be angry. "I'm certainly lonely and I miss her," he said.

Sheila Levine joined the cause to find a solution years ago. Then, last year, she got breast cancer herself.

Some have speculated about the environment.

"That's a really important question right now because it's such a wonderful environment," said Levine. "People are very conscious of how they live and yet it is happening here."

Epidemiologist Tina Clarke wrote the most recent study on breast cancer rates in Marin County. She concludes educated affluent women might unknowingly be doing things that put them more at risk. And much of it may have to do with hormonal changes at childbirth.

"These are things like not having children at all, delaying child bearing till later ages like after 30, drinking more alcohol," said Clarke.

Four federal agencies -- including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute -- have now pledged to help solve Marin's mystery.

But researchers like Clarke say looking at other communities with affluent women may turn up similar problems.

In places like Long Island, New York, breast cancer rates are also high. Twenty years ago, Long Island reported 30 percent more cases than the national average.

"That's another suburban community with maybe a lot of professional women and women that already have established risk factors for breast cancer," said Clarke.

Back in Marin County, thousands of volunteers from the Marin Cancer Project plan to ring every single doorbell in the county in a one day drive to seek more money for research and raise awareness.

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