Biology 103
2000 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Breast Cancer and the Environment

Adria Robbin

Cancer of any kind, but especially breast cancer, has become a devastating fact of life for a large percentage of American families. But even with new treatments, death rates are still high and there is growing debate on what researchers should be looking for in terms of causes of the disease. Many activist groups are now pointing to the environment and the toxins that exist in it as a probable leading cause for breast cancers.

"Breast cancer is a malignancy in one or both breasts. Most patients are women, but 1 percent of patients are men. This is the most common cancer among women after cancer of the skin and accounts for one out of three cancer diagnoses in the United States. If not treated early, breast cancer can spread to nearby lymph glands, lungs, bone and other parts of the body. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer." (1).

These are some of the facts about the disease, and they are certainly grave. But the most frightening aspect of breast cancer is that no one is at all sure of the cause or causes of the disease. Risk factors at this point include family history of the disease, presence of the breast cancer gene (BRCA1 or BRCA2) that scientists have recently discovered in ones DNA, obesity, heavy alcohol use, and a person is certainly more at risk if they have already had one form on cancer in their body. (1).

Scientists consider environmental risk factors to include one's personal health habits (i.e. smoking, bad eating habits, not enough exercise) as well as different forms of radiation, pollutants, pesticides and toxic chemicals in the environment surrounding us. Scientists think that environmental agents like these are the cause of about three quarters of the cancer cases. This of course, is dependant on the concentration of toxins in one's surrounding environment. This means that someone who works with certain chemicals, metals or other possible carcinogens, will have a higher risk of developing some form of cancer than someone who is not exposed on a regular basis. (2). Many studies have been done in areas where there have been an unusually high amount of cancer - and particularly breast cancer - occurrences. One such study was conducted in an affluent suburb of Boston, called Newton, where there were a high number of breast cancer cases in a concentrated area. The study sought to find some of the environmental causes for such a high rate of breast cancer in the town, and interestingly enough, many of the causes were directly related to the socio-economic status of the people in the Newton. The study, published by the Silent Spring Institute, Inc., a non-profit organization that studies links between the environment and breast cancer, found that certain aspects of the lifestyles of the wealthier women in the area could be contributing to their higher rate of breast cancer. The study found that a high percentage of the women in Newton used professional lawn care services and hired exterminators, and used dry cleaning service, among other things. Each of these practices imports toxic chemicals onto personal property and into the home. The study mentions, though, that there is also a high rate of mammography in the area, and that simple fact of earlier detection results in more cases of breast cancer in the report for that area when comparing it to other communities. (3).

Other studies such as the one conducted by the Silent Spring Institute are popping up all around the country in hopes that more and more hard evidence will be collected for the case of environmental causes of cancer. However, "Despite all the attention paid to breast cancer risk factors, they're not very useful. The American Cancer Society estimates that the recognized risk factors explain only about 25 percent of breast cancers, leaving the remaining 75 percent as unpredictable as random shootings." (4). So, for all the research and studies conducted in efforts to find concrete causes for all kinds of cancers, the majority of the effected population of cancer sufferers have no idea what the cause of their disease it. Still, we can use the information we have to make sure that carcinogenic substances in our environment - whether they're in our own backyard, our workplace, or from air pollution or ground water contamination - are identified and procedures are taken to reduce or eliminate their use so the incidents of the cancers related to them is significantly decreased.

WWW Sources

1) CNN Health Pages; , basic information about breast cancer.

2) American Cancer Society; , article entitled "Environmental Factors and Cancer Risk: An Overview."

3) Silent Spring Institute, Inc.;., report from breast cancer study in Newton, MA

4) Mother Jones (Magazine);., article entitled "Why?" on the cancer - environment link

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