With all the pink ribbons, pink t-shirts, all the cancer walks, the door-to-door solicitations, and even pink lemonade for $1.00 on some airline flights, breast cancer is obviously a well-publicized disease in the United States. With statistics that over 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer, chances are every single person in this country knows a friend or family member or co-worker who has had to face this very unfortunate condition.
But every time I see all those ads and pleas for money, I cringe because of what I know to be some important facts about cancer, cancer industries, and cancer economics. While bringing awareness to such a horrible condition is not in and of itself a problem, the public must be made aware of the truth behind breast cancer, "breast cancer awareness month," and the health as well as economic issues surrounding the campaigns.
The same large industries that produce a significant amount of environmental toxicity also produce mammogram technology, chemotherapy, treatment centers and fund much of the cancer drug research, fund large campaign that asks people to voluntarily give of their own scarce resources to fund research, and sit on the board of directors of organizations such as the American Cancer Society. They also fund organizations that lobby Congress to oppose health reforms that might upset private industry's control over our health care options.
According to writer Sharon Batt, for example, "The primary sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, AstraZeneca (formerly known as Zeneca), is a British-based multinational giant that manufactures the cancer drug tamoxifen as well as fungicides and herbicides, including the carcinogen acetochlor. Its Perry, Ohio, chemical plant is the third-largest source of potential cancer-causing pollution in the United States, releasing 53,000 pounds of recognized carcinogens into the air in 1996. When Zeneca created Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985, it was owned by Imperial Chemical Industries, a multibillion-dollar producer of pesticides, paper, and plastics. State and federal agencies sued ICI in 1990, alleging that it dumped DDT and PCBs both banned in the United States since the 1970s--in Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. Any mention of what role such chemicals may be playing in rising breast cancer rates is missing from Breast Cancer Awareness Month promos." (1)
On their website, the National Breast Cancer Foundation says, "our mission is to save lives by increasing awareness of breast cancer through education and by providing mammograms for those in need." But are mammograms really the most efficient (least cost and widest coverage) way to keep women healthy and cancer-free?
1.Compression: Mammograms place massive compression to breast tissue. In medical school, students are taught to be gentle when performing breast exams to decrease the risk of breaking apart cancerous cells and spreading the disease. 2.Radiation: Each mammogram increases your risk of breast cancer by 1-2 percent. A woman getting a mammogram every year for 20 years increases her risk of breast cancer by 20-40 percent. Breast tissue is the second most sensitive tissue to radiation next to fetal tissue. 3.Inaccuracies: a.False negatives occur when mammograms appear normal even though breast cancer is present. Overall, screening mammograms miss up to 20 percent of the breast cancers that are present at the time of screening. Mammograms are most reliable for larger tumors, which means the disease is already at advanced stages. Obviously, this then raises serious questions about the need for "early screening." (2) b.False positives: Many positive mammograms (approximately 30% of the total) do not show cancer when later biopsied.
In a review of the seven randomised trials comparing mammographic screening with no mammographic screening involving 600,000 women (and available on PubMed in November 2008), authors PC Gøtzsche and M Nielsen M. found that "screening leads to a reduction in breast cancer mortality of 15% and to 30% overdiagnosis and overtreatment. This means that for every 2000 women invited for screening throughout 10 years, one will have her life prolonged. In addition, 10 healthy women, who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening, will be diagnosed as breast cancer patients and will be treated unnecessarily. Furthermore, more than 200 women will experience important psychological distress for many months because of false positive findings". (3)
A false positive can mean more scans, radiation exposure, biopsies, and even surgery. This, on top of lots of anxiety. Researchers at the University of Washington and Harvard University found in a 10 year period culminating in 1998, at least one woman in two received a false-positive result after having annual screening mammograms. They also found that these false positives resulted in $33 of additional spending for every $100 spent on screening. (4)
According to U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) estimates in 2009, it takes 1,904 women in their 40s being screened for a decade to save the life of one woman whose cancer would have gone undetected. "As science journalist Merrill Goozner observes, that means that it costs as much as $20 million - not counting the interventions for false-positive results - for every life saved by regular mammograms for women in their 40s. You could ask whether one life is worth $20 million (maybe), but you could also ask whether we might find ways to spend $20 million that would save more than one life (almost certainly)." (5)
4.Overdiagnosis. The identification of tumors that would never have become a clinical problem in the patient's lifetime is known as overdiagnosis.
A significant percentage of mammograms find small lumps that would not be detectable by other means but they are not lumps that need to be treated, even if they do contain what is considered 'cancer.' Often, the body's immune system (with its 'natural killer cells') can remove or limit cancer cells to where they are never noticed to actually be a problem.
This 'overdiagnosis' then means that small types of cancers that would not normally cause a problem are treated with very invasive methods such as lumpectomy, mastectomy, radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy... Since doctors can't distinguish breast cancers that will progress from those that will not, some people, are receiving unnecessary treatment that is of no benefit to them, can be toxic, and often comes with significant side effects.
"The precise extent of breast cancer overdiagnosis is unclear. In a paper published in July in the British Medical Journal, Danish researchers estimated that one out of every three tumors detected by screening mammography was overdiagnosed. Their estimate was based on an analysis of breast cancer rates before and after the implementation of government-run mammography screening programs in Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom." (6)
Breast cancer prevention has a lot more to do with lifestyle, hormones and nutrition than it does about how often you get a mammogram.
BREAST CANCER AND ESTROGEN
Breast cancer can be prevented by being proactive on many levels. One of the ways is for a woman to make sure that her female hormones are in balance.
Different Types of Estrogen
There re different estrogens and estrogen metabolites that can impact our risk of breast cancer. For example some estrogen metabolites are protective, while others some harmful. Specifically the 2-hydroxyesterone is beneficial, while the 4- and 16- versions of estrogen have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.
In other words, you want the more of the "2" estrogen and less of the "4" or "16" estrogen metabolites. (Urine testing is available to evaluate these metabolites.) In order to produce more of the OH-2 estrogen and breakdown the other forms of estrogen, your liver, kidneys, thyroid, etc. all have to be functionally healthy.
Not only that, but you want to be sure to eliminate sources of "xenoestrogens" in your body (e.g. eliminate a heavy reliance on soy products, plastic bottles and packaging, etc.). See the article Xenoestrogens and Breast Cancer: Nowhere to Run, by By Luita D. Spangler at http://www.fwhc.org/health/xeno.htm
Thyroid hormones impact the liver's ability to metabolize estrogen. If thyroid physiology is sluggish (i.e. hypothyroidism), the liver will shift metabolism of estrogen into the unwanted "4" and"16" estrogen metabolites.
Solution: Get your thyroid checked with a good blood chemistry thyroid panel.
Estrogen is detoxified in the liver, combines with bile from the gall bladder and is removed from the body. Therefore, it stands to reasons that if the liver is not functioning properly, estrogen balance will suffer.
Solution: Support liver health using supportive nutrients and regularly get tested for liver health.
Your gastrointestinal system is host to trillions of bacteria, which we depend on for survival. However, there are good bugs, and bad bugs.
If you have too many bad bugs they can actually undo, or reverse, the detoxification of estrogen that occurred in your liver. They do so using a baceterial enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, which essentially reactivates estrogen and allows it back into your bloodstream.
Also, if you're prone to constipation, hormones normally designed to be excreted, can enter back into your system causing hormone overload.
Solution: One simple thing you can do is improve the ecology of your intestines by taking probiotics. If you have any GI symptoms, testing can be done to determine your individual gastrointestinal status.
BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE
Research has suggested that insulin is promotes cancer growth in all tissues, including breast cancer. Blood sugar imbalances virtually destroy every system in our body. In women, blood sugar issues can cause significant hormonal imbalances leading to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Solution: Evaluate blood sugar management in your body through a good blood chemistry panel, and use the appropriate diet, exercise and supplement recommendations as needed.
NUTRITION AND LIFESTYLE
Living in the United States has so many benefits and we have SO MUCH to be thankful for. Nevertheless, because of our "developed" status, we are also exposed to an increasing number of toxins- and unfortunately our protective agencies such as the EPA and FDA have not been adequately able to protect our most precious asset: our health.
Good websites that provide information about carcinogenic toxins in our environment and how you might avoid their use include:
The Environmental Working group: http://www.ewg.org/
Cancer Prevention Coalition: http://www.preventcancer.com/
Healthy, clean nutrition is also an important part of cancer prevention. There are many wonderful nutritional supplements and organic foods that provide anti-oxidant and detoxification support. Also, a healthy mental/emotional status, a good amount of sleep, exercise and creative outlets) may be more beneficial (and certainly less harmful) than getting yearly (or every other year) mammograms.
Breast health and breast cancer are complex issues and have far more to do with whole body, mind, spirit health and with how one lives than getting regular mammograms.
1. Batt, Sharon. “Cancer Inc.” Sierra; Sep/Oct99, Vol. 84 Issue 5. p36.
2. National Cancer Insitute Fact Sheet. Mammograms. December 16, 2009. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Detection/mammograms
3. Gøtzsche PC, Nielsen M. Screening for breast cancer with mammography. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001877. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001877.pub3.
4. Laurie McHale. "Breast cancer screening exams produce high level of false-positive results." April 15, 1998. University of Washington Health and Medicine News.
5. Paul Waldman. The Mammogram Mess. The American Prospect, November 24, 2009
6. National Cancer Institute. NCI Cancer Bulletin. Does Mammography Sometimes Detect Too Much Breast Cancer? October 20, 2009 o Volume 6 / Number 20.