Breast Cancer Activism: Moving Beyond the Mammography Debate

| August 12, 2002 Issue

M ammography has long been touted by media and the medical industry as the only effective breast cancer prevention--yet even as women faithfully go in for mammograms, the number of cases continues to rise. Sabrina McCormick in Ms. writes of an emerging movement in breast cancer activism that wants to redirect studies of the disease from hereditary and lifestyle factors to possible environmental causes.

With little known about the causes of breast cancer, trying to prevent the disease has been like stepping on eggshells: "We struggle to follow a barrage of lifestyle advice," notes McCormick, "eat right, exercise, have children young, take the pill, don't take the pill. We literally race for the cure in fundraising events and wait for recommendations from each new study."

In the meantime, women go in for mammograms (whose effectiveness and safety has been challenged by new research). Environmental breast cancer activists think the focus on mammograms diverts the public's attention from where it should be going: to carcinogens in the environment.

Some statistics have shown that "carcinogenic chemicals accumulate in the fatty tissue of women's breasts," and "only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be related to such genetic components as the BRCA-1 gene defect." Also, Japanese women--a very low-risk group for breast cancer--who move to the U.S. begin to match the rates of American-born women. According to environmental breast cancer activists, this is enough evidence for researchers to seriously rethink their approach in studying and treating breast cancer.
--Julie Madsen
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