Reducing Breast Cancer Risk: From the Personal to the Political

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 22, 2008

Our Bodies Our Blog has invited the folks at Breast Cancer Action to write monthly guest posts on breast cancer and related issues.

by Pauli Ojea

Last week, as part of a special section on health and the human body, The New York Times published a story on reducing breast cancer risk. The piece included the usual tips: exercise, maintain a healthy weight, limit alcohol consumption, breast-feed and avoid hormone therapy.

While these tips are generally good guidelines to follow by anyone who wants to stay healthy, keep in mind that they all pertain to personal lifestyle habits. By only addressing individual lifestyle choices, The New York Times missed an opportunity to bring up another important breast cancer factor: the environment.

More than half the women who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease or lifestyle factors like the ones described in the article. If we’re really going to reduce the high rate of breast cancer, we have to do better at addressing the root causes.

Over the last decade, increased attention has been given to the relationship between the environment and breast cancer, and we’re slowly starting to see more information and resources on reducing individual exposure to suspect chemicals or activities. But what about the things people can’t control for themselves?

For example, a woman can make the individual choice to eat fruits and vegetables and to buy organic food in order to reduce her breast cancer risk. However, if her drinking water contains pesticides, she’s involuntarily exposed to toxins. On her own, there’s not much she can do about pesticides showing up in her drinking water. But working with others in her community, she may be able to influence policy decisions around pesticide use.

The example above is not a hypothetical one, as pesticides and other hazardous chemicals often make their way into our drinking water. A chemical that is of particular concern to Breast Cancer Action is an herbicide called atrazine.

Quick science lesson: Aromatase is an enzyme that helps convert testosterone to estrogen in the body. Atrazine acts as an aromatase promoter. Breast cancer is largely an estrogen-driven disease, so you don’t want anything that unnecessarily and artificially increases its production. In fact, one of the ways doctors are treating breast cancer patients is with drugs called aromatase inhibitors (AIs). AIs work by inhibiting the production of aromatase, which in turn, limits the production of estrogen.

So, there is a drug that cuts off aromatase, and there is an herbicide that makes more of it. This means that it’s possible that a woman could be taking an aromatase inhibitor for breast cancer treatment, while at the same time consuming small amounts of atrazine, an aromatase promoter in her drinking water.

What’s even more baffling is that two of the pharmaceutical companies that make aromatase inhibitors (Novartis and AstraZeneca) own the agricultural company (Syngenta) that makes atrazine. The pharmaceutical companies say that inhibiting aromatase is good for breast cancer, while the agricultural company says there is nothing wrong with some aromatase promoter in our drinking water. Frustrated? You can read more about these conflicting stories in the latest issue of BCA’s The Source.

While none of us can individually stop atrazine from getting into our drinking water, collectively, there is something we can all do to ensure that no one — not women with breast cancer, not farmworkers, not consumers — is exposed to this chemical. There’s a bill in Congress right now that would ban atrazine and ultimately protect all of us from being exposed, and you can click here to show your support.

Advocating for legislation that protects our health requires people power, and it’s where your personal actions can help make something a little better for everybody else.

Pauli Ojea is the community organizer at Breast Cancer Action, where she mobilizes people to do something besides worry. Click here to show your support for a ban on atrazine, and here to read more about atrazine at The BCA Source.

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