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Breast Cancer Victims Suffer From Foolish Priorities

In government, political priorities often supersede science and good health policy. In fact, a recent government report may shift funding away from useful research to study the most unlikely causes of breast cancer. More women will suffer in the future than necessary as money for useful research shrinks.

Released by the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee, which an act of Congress created in 2008, this report says more funding should go to “breast cancer prevention.” But rather than identify known causes women can address (such as poor diets), it suggests government agencies “intensify the study of chemical and physical factors.”

This approach flies in the face of the best research on  cancer, such as  the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer.

At the end of the 20th century, breast cancer among women had risen, particularly in developed nations, and activists like to say chemicals play a big role. Yet NCI pointed out breast cancer rates appeared higher in part because better screening and increased detection found more cancers. The percentage of women age 40 to 49 who obtained mammograms doubled between 1987 and 1998 from 32 percent to 63 percent. The percentage of women age 50 to 64 who received a mammogram increased from 31 percent to 73 percent in the same period. In addition, hormone replacement therapy appears to have increased breast cancer risks, an unfortunate situation that was unknown at the time.

In its most recent report, the NCI said breast cancer has stabilized after “sharply decreasing” following the reduction of hormone replacement therapy. NCI does not identify chemicals as a significant cause of breast cancer.  Likewise, the American Cancer Society notes on its website: “At this time research does not show a clear link between breast cancer risk and exposure to things like plastics, certain cosmetics and personal care products, and pesticides.”

In addition, the most scientifically robust studies on the topic have failed to find a convincing link between breast cancer and chemicals. For example, U.S. researchers produced one of the largest such studies, which was conducted among women in Long Island, N.Y.  It was unable to establish a link between the chemicals most often cited as a potential cause of breast cancer—DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane) and other pesticides as well as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)—and an elevated level of cancers in that area.

Risk factors associated with breast cancer are related to lifestyle choices available to women in industrial societies—which explains why breast cancer is more common in Western nations. These include dietary choices such as consumption of too much fat, alcohol, or both; obesity among children (which increases risks as it can affect hormone levels and produce early menstruation); weight gain after menopause; and weight gain after 18 years of age. Delaying or refraining from childbearing also can affect hormone levels, thereby increasing breast cancer risks.

Not emphasized by anti-chemical activists or this recent government report is the fact modern medicine—and its many chemicals—are saving women from breast cancer. A woman with breast cancer in the late 1970s had a 75 percent chance of surviving five or more years, while today she has a 90 percent chance, according to data on NCI’s website.

For more details about cancer and chemicals, see SafeChemicalPolicy.org.