“Prevention is better than cure,” to quote the humanist and great thinker Erasmus. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and pink ribbons are festooning store shelves everywhere. What you won’t hear from the plasterers of pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness groups is talk of prevention—so I am here to bring that concept to the forefront.
Let’s talk statistics. According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer diagnoses are not decreasing. This year, the NCI predicts there will be 232,340 new cases of breast cancer and 39,620 deaths from breast cancer. In 2011, those numbers were very similar: 230,480 new cases and 39,520 deaths. Indeed, since 2000, rates of breast cancer diagnosis have remained statistically steady. I am often asked why, with all the funding for and research on breast cancer, these rates do not decrease from year to year? Because a great deal of that money spent on breast cancer goes toward cure and awareness, NOT on prevention.
Think about it. If we don’t do anything to prevent new cases, we are destined to continue to diagnose them. Prevention is a common sense concept, yet according to a report on spending published by the Komen Foundation (http://ww5.komen.org/ResearchGrants/GrantPrograms.html), this major breast cancer organization spends only 7% of its research funding for prevention! That said, this is not the place to debate or question the actions and motivating factors influencing organizations and researchers working on breast cancer. If I am diagnosed with breast cancer, I will be encouraged by the fact that thanks to research on cure, I have a better chance of surviving now than I would have 30 years ago.
Doesn’t it seem logical that if we prevent breast cancer, we cure breast cancer? For this reason, the idea of breast cancer prevention is thrilling! How can we prevent breast cancer? I encourage you to check out the website www.BreastCancerFund.org. The Breast Cancer Fund is the only national breast cancer organization focused on prevention of this terrible disease. There are many, many factors that influence a person’s chance of having breast cancer in her or his lifetime. We know many chemicals found in our environment, both inside and out, fundamentally change our cellular function, affecting our hormone systems, reproductive systems, neurologic systems, etc. “With more scientific evidence emerging practically daily, it’s clear: the chemicals in our environment play a role in altering our biological processes. It’s clear that our exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation are connected to our breast cancer risk.” (Breast Cancer Fund, http://www.breastcancerfund.org/clear-science/environmental-breast-cancer-links/).
So while pink ribbons adorn our products, many of which contain chemicals linked to breast cancer—mull that over for a minute or two—organizations will continue to say there is not enough evidence to link breast cancer to environmental factors. Indeed, a study funded by the Komen Foundation published last year by the Institute of Medicine acknowledges studies linking various chemicals to breast cancer, but in the next paragraph states more research is needed. We are all walking laboratories for breast cancer researchers. All of us, men and women alike, carry two petri dishes on our chests. I choose to take a precautionary approach—if there is potential for harm, it is better to avoid that threat when safer options are available.
When a company slaps a pink ribbon on a product, we in the business of prevention call it “pink washing.” A few examples of companies engaging in this marketing tactic, which in reality results in only pennies per sale donated to breast cancer causes, include Avon, Estee Lauder, and Revlon, all of which sell products containing chemicals linked to cancer. This ethical dilemma warrants serious consideration on the part of the consumer, as well as a commitment to choose non-toxic products instead. Sadly, truly non-toxic products can be difficult to find and are often more expensive. More and more companies use misleading labeling to suggest their products are natural or organic while still using toxic chemicals. Until better legislation governing the use of toxic chemicals in personal care products is passed, consumers must educate themselves and learn to read labels. If a product label looks like something only a chemist could understand, it is probably better to steer clear!
I have always said, if we prevent breast cancer, we cure it, and with it many of the other ills plaguing society today. By eating a healthful diet rich in vegetables and by avoiding products with chemicals linked to disease, we start down the path of prevention. Learn to read product labels, ask manufacturers and legislators what they are doing to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals, and finally, make safer choices, for ourselves and for our children.