Women in the United State face a greater lifetime risk of breast cancer than any previous generation, with rates having tripled during the past 40 years. Current estimates are that one in six women will receive a diagnosis in their lifetime. Contrary to popular opinion, only about 5 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a link to the “breast cancer gene”. The vast majority of women will never know the cause of their disease. As pink ribbons and fundraisers continue to raise awareness around the breast cancer epidemic this month, finding the “cure” has become a comforting concept. Pink is everywhere: football teams wear pink gloves on the field and pink ribbons are placed at car dealerships and shopping mall entrances. While all of these efforts are with good intention, we need to ask ourselves serious questions about pink ribbon marketing. How much money from pink ribbon products go to real breast cancer prevention? And, can we find “a cure” in today’s world without addressing the environmental triggers?
Breast Cancer Research Funding
Despite the fact that since the 1970’s close to $200 billion has been spent on research for treatments and genetic components of breast cancer, rates have continued to rise dramatically. Since the 1970’s, more than 85,000 synthetic chemicals have been added to our environment while only 7 percent have been tested for effects on human health. And of those billions of dollars, only 3 percent of the funds have gone towards research into primary prevention, that is, stopping the disease before it starts.
One organization, the Susan Komen Foundation, to fulfill its promise to end breast cancer forever, has invested nearly $1 billion in breast cancer research to date and aims to invest another $1 billion over the next decade. Their website states, “With the funds raised from Passionately Pink for the Cure last year, we are able to fund research and education programs that will move us closer to a world without breast cancer.” Yet, there is not a word on the environmental links or real prevention strategies on their website. Komen conference sponsors include Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical partners.
We do need early detection and, of course, a “cure” would be more than welcome, but why not focus on preventing cancer in the first place? Prevention requires more than wearing a pink ribbon or walking for research. It requires addressing the real issues surrounding the global increase in breast cancer incidence. Public health education, corporate responsibility, and governmental regulation of toxic chemicals must be included in addressing the factors for cancer, including toxic exposures beginning in utero, which can contribute to breast cancer later in life. It is time to confront the root cause of this epidemic. Inadequate nutrition for maintaining a healthy immune system is another major contributor for increasing the risk for all cancers. While many of us in advocacy, health policy and as health care providers ask the questions around environmental exposures in our workplaces and in our homes, it is imperative that we understand how cumulative toxic exposures impact our health, immune system, and genes. There is no public health campaign to address these issues. We all must confront our current lifestyle and explore how our culture has evolved into the “better living through chemistry” mentality that was promoted, beginning in the 1930’s. Baby boomers can remember the clever better living through chemistry television campaign by Dupont back in the 1950’s. Fast forward, we now live in a chemical stew; from the products we put on our bodies, to the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe, including second hand cigarette smoke. What we are exposed to on a daily basis is beginning to shed light on this epidemic affecting younger and younger women… and men.
We know that there are contributing factors that increase breast cancer risk including having children late in life and early onset of puberty. Exposure to radiation from chest x-rays during childhood and taking hormone replacement therapy are also known risk factors along with alcohol abuse, tobacco and second hand smoke. Breast cancer rates are higher in women who are obese, and women who gain excess weight during adulthood. Increasingly, studies are finding that the exposure to chemicals in our daily lives play a role in the development of breast cancer, more than 216 chemicals noted to date. Global research estimates that a women’s cumulative exposure to estrogen compounds including hormone mimicking chemicals that permeate our environment may be responsible for up to 50% percent of all breast cancers today.
The degree of alarm within the scientific community concerning the dangers of hormone disrupting environmental pollutants is also apparent in a report released last month by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a European umbrella group of non-governmental research organizations. This report directly questions the growing tendency to label breast cancer a lifestyle and genetic disease. “We will not be able to reduce the risk of breast cancer without addressing preventable causes, particularly exposure to chemicals,” said the author of the paper, Andreas Kortenkamp, who heads the Center for Toxicology at London University’s School of Pharmacy. The advocacy group, The Breast Cancer Fund, whose mission is specifically focused on the identification and elimination of the environmental and preventable causes of breast cancer, has also done a great deal to influence public awareness concerning the dangers of endocrine disruptors and environmental pollutants. The group publishes an annual review of the evidence – State of the Evidence 2008: The Connection between Breast Cancer and the Environment – which is available from the organization’s website www.breastcancerfund.org
Mounting research implicates multiple chemical exposures and a cumulative toxic body burden in increased cancer rates in both animals and humans. Studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Americans of all ages carry a body burden of at least 148 chemicals, some of them banned for decades due to toxicity. Alarmingly, newborn cord blood studies show evidence of exposure to at least 18 synthetic chemicals. We recall the DES debacle and its consequent cancer in children and now grandchildren. Yet, industry says the evidence is lacking regarding human harm in minute doses while research continues to document the effects.
The full effects of endocrine disruptors are still a long way from being understood; they have only been around a short time. However, it is evident that we are witnessing a spike in breast cancer, testicular, and prostate cancers as well as increased infertility rates, autism, childhood cancers, chemical sensitivities, allergies and ADHD. While it may be too early to view endocrine disruptors as the primary source of this increase, the evidence points to a clear connection. Scientists and advocacy groups are leading the way on informing the public, urging health policy actions, and confronting industry on this pressing issue.
Review of Endocrine Disruptors
- Pesticides, herbicides including pesticide residues in soil
- Dry cleaning chemicals
Solvents paints, varnishes, cleaning fluids
- Spermicidal contraceptives and treated condoms,
- Perfume, room “air fresheners”, cleaning fragrances
- Car exhaust, Car interiors -especially that new car smell (off gassing)
- Plastics, baby bottles, food storage containers, styrofoam, tin cans (BPA lining)
- PVC plumbing pipes
- Pharmaceutical runoff in our water supply
- BHA and BHT, common food preservatives
FD&C Red No. 3, a common food dye (erythrosine)
- Detergents, fabric softeners, dishwashing liquids
- Carpets, furniture
- Personal care products
Nutrition for Protection and Prevention
To compound the problem of our toxic environment, we have refined away much of the nutritional value of our food supply and replaced it with imitation foods lacking protective phytonutrients. Products are too often filled with artificial colorings, preservatives, flavorings, and many unlisted industrial ingredients. Our modern poor quality diet, combined with agricultural pesticides and animals being raised on antibiotics, chemical feed, and growth hormones, may have predisposed many of us to experience a toxic body burden, stressing our body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate these products. According to Dr. Walter Willet at the Harvard School of Public Health and the American Institute for Cancer Research, a recent study reviewing 4500 scientific studies concluded in a 650 page report that 40% of cancers are avoidable. He states, “The bottom line: eat a plant based diet, maintain moderate weight throughout life, and get some exercise”. The good news is that cancer can be reduced by avoiding or lowering exposures to environmental toxicants as well as by optimizing our immune surveillance systems and cellular energy metabolism with nutritional intervention strategies.