No New Answers in Trying to Uncover Environmental Risks for Breast Cancer
Seven years ago, when my (now deceased) mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, questions swirled throughout our minds. What caused an otherwise healthy, clean living woman to develop this horrible disease? We sat down with her oncologist, while he asked a series of questions, trying to ascertain her risk factors? Smoker? No. Drink alcohol regularly? No. Take exogenous hormone pills like Premarin? No. Family history? No. Presence of the HER gene? No. Overweight? Definitely not. In frustration we asked him "What was it that gave her this tumor?" He scratched his head and nodded pensively, telling us that our beloved mother, like so many others, had no obvious risk factors for breast cancer. We were stymied. My mother became convinced that some unknown environmental factor (like pesticides, food additives, hormones given to animals) had caused her disease.
In this respect, I doubt my mother was unusual. Many women who have had breast cancer suspect that our exposure to various environmental chemicals over the course of a lifetime have some bearing on the development of this frustratingly common disease. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, one in nine women will develop breast cancer, and 1 in 29 will die of it. While death rates have declined due to advances in medical treatment, the incidence of breast cancer remains stubbornly high.
A report commissioned by the Susan G. Komen Foundation asked the very questions that so many want answered. What are risk factors in our environment that increase our risk for breast cancer? How can those risks be quantified? The 364 page report was released Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies after two years in the making. Unfortunately for many women, the results only highlight previously known risk factors, rather than uncover new ones. The panel reiterated the importance of controlling body weight, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding exposure to exogenous hormones like Premarin, and minimizing exposure to radiation (such as those in CT scans). The panel stated that "possible links" to breast cancer exist with nighttime shift work and exposure to the chemicals benzene, ethylene oxide, and 1,2-butadiene (present in automobile exhaust, and secondhand smoke, among other places). The panel was unable to identify any new environmental factors which may be associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer.Continued on the next page