Preventing breast cancer isn't about professional breast exams or other screening tools—it's about stopping the disease before it takes hold in your body in the first place. The truth is, while more treatment breakthroughs for breast cancer continue to enter the healthcare system, a plan for stopping the physically and emotionally draining disease before it starts is sorely lacking. In terms of laying out national ground rules for truly preventing breast cancer, we're in the Dark Ages.
Now, a groundbreaking 2013 report outlines what really needs to be done to combat this all-too-common disease that affects about 227,000 women and 2,200 men annually. A top priority? Keeping toxic chemicals found in everyday products off store shelves. "This report carefully documents the science that shows we are missing significant opportunities to save lives and reduce suffering," says Julia Brody, PhD, executive director at the Silent Spring Institute, a public health research organization focusing on breast cancer. Her research played a role in the report's findings. "Prevention means keeping women from getting sick in the first place, not just improving treatments."
The Report of the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) calls for a rebalanced approach to cancer research to give priority to environmental studies and prevention. The plan also outlines the need to ask Congress to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act so the U.S. tests chemicals for safety before they wind up in products on store shelves around the country. "These changes are crucially relevant to every woman because breast cancer is so common," Brody adds.
Prevention-minded researchers are hoping this first-of-its-kind breast cancer report parallels a similar movement sparked by the 1964 Surgeon General's report on tobacco smoking and human health. "The Surgeon General's report moved the country forward to improve the health of all," explains University of Texas breast cancer expert Michele Forman, PhD, the state-of-the-science subcommittee chair of the IBCERCC. "It didn't have all the answers, but it set the stage for us to move forward to address tobacco smoke, and that's what we hope this report will do—make people aware of the need to reduce burden of breast cancer."
Here are some key elements outlined in the report:
• Learning what chemical exposures—and what exposure times during women's life stages—lead to breast cancer. "This will allow for targeted reduction of exposure," explains Michael N. Gould, PhD, IBERCC research process subcommittee chair and a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher. "Such action could reduce risk of breast cancer."
• Intensify the study of chemical and physical factors that potentially influence the risk of developing and the likelihood of surviving breast cancer.
• Plan strategically across federal, state, and nongovernmental organizations to accelerate the pace of scientific research on breast cancer and the environment and to foster innovation and collaborative science.
• Ask federal agencies to set up research progress reports that are easily understood by the general public, so people can make more informed decisions
"The report is crystal clear: Instead of focusing nearly all federal research on treatment and a cure, we have to turn our attention and research dollars to prevention," says Jeanne Rizzo, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, and cochair of the committee that released the report. "Currently, only about 10 percent of federal breast cancer funding goes to prevention. Given the magnitude of this issue and the promise of prevention, that's not acceptable."
While more research identifying breast cancer and environmental links are much needed, animal studies have suggested several common chemicals may help promote the disease. Here's how you can cut your exposure:
• Avoid fragranced products, including perfumes, scented air fresheners, and laundry detergents. Many contain hormone-disrupting phthalates. Look for plant-based Free & Clear products.
• Clean up your personal care routine. Visit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database to rate your current products and find safe alternatives.
• "Clean greener" by making your own natural cleaning products out of basic ingredients like white vinegar and baking soda.
• Avoid hormone-mimicking chemicals like bisphenol A, or BPA. This canned-food and thermal-receipt chemical is linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer.