Breast Cancer Risk Factors

In 2007, the WCFR/AICR Diet and Cancer Report recommended that changes to diet and physical activity could reduce the burden of cancer worldwide. In particular it proposed that 42 per cent of breast cancers in the UK could be prevented by diet and physical activity, leading to lower body fatness (although, interestingly, higher rates of body fat actually decreased the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women). It also concluded that alcohol intake increases the risk of breast cancer across all age groups. Having more children, at a younger age and, most importantly, breast feeding all contribute to reducing the risk of breast cancer according to the report.

There is, and has been for a considerable number of years, a significant body of evidence linking breast cancer with our environment. Starting with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960’s through to Dr Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Egologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment , published in 1998, the evidence continues to grow.

In 2010, the USA Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action published its Sixth Edition of the State of the Evidence , collating years of research of the links between breast cancer and the environment into a comprehensive report.

In 2010 in the USA, the President’s Cancer Panel produced its 2008-09 Annual Report , Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk. What We Can Do Now, in which the Panel considered industrial, occupational, and agricultural exposures to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances. The Panel was

“particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

And, most recently, the World Health Organisation, in March 2011, issued its Asturias Pledge calling on governments world wide to address the burden of environment-related cancers by including

“….environmental and occupational preventive measures as part of national cancer control programmes…….”

For those of us concerned with the risk of breast cancer, these reports have highlighted an important group of carcinogenic chemicals, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) which have been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. EDC’s are found in many everyday products, one of the most common being bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in the manufacture of plastics. In 2010, admidst pressure from many European environmental health agencies, the European Union banned the use of BPA in baby bottles. However, it continues to be used in other everyday products, including the lining of food cans.

Despite the public perception that “it must be safe, or else it wouldn’t be on sale”, there are, in fact, more than 80,000 chemicals in common use today, a large proportion of which is under-studied and under-regulated. Therefore exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread .

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