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For too long now breast cancer research has been dominated by the elusive search for the cure," says Andrea Martin, founder and executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco-based group that has launched a major campaign to draw attention to the links between the environment and breast cancer. Citing the fact that only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are genetically caused and that the number of women with breast cancer nearly doubled between 1970 and 1990, the fund has teamed up with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to urge the public to agitate for more research into environmental causes of the disease. Last October the two groups rallied 70 individuals and organizations (including local breast cancer groups, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the YWCA) to sign a letter to President Clinton. The letter called for increased funding for research examining environmental links; monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of what chemicals are in our bodies and in what amounts; full funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) program to screen for environmental toxins; and a cross-agency committee to oversee government funding for environmental health research.

The following is excerpted from the Breast Cancer Fund's publication Examining the Environmental Links to Breast Cancer.
Since 1971, the year President Richard Nixon declared a "war on cancer," more than $35 billion has been committed to research. Yet we still cannot pinpoint with certainty the causes behind the vast majority of breast cancer cases, nor have treatment options changed or improved much over the years. Women still must choose from surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. In addition, some in the medical establishment have misleadingly focused on mammography as a prevention measure, with the assumption that early detection can prevent serious illness. Mammography, however, is not prevention. It can only detect cancer that already exists and may have been present for eight to ten years. It fails to detect breast cancer 20 percent of the time in women over 50, and as much as 40 percent of the time in younger women.

Hundreds of scientific studies of laboratory animals and wildlife have drawn links between exposure to toxic chemicals and cancer. Emerging science suggests that synthetic chemicals in the environment pose a risk to the human reproductive system, the endocrine system, and to human growth and development both in utero and after birth.

A rapidly evolving field of research involves the study of "endocrine disrupters" or "hormone mimickers"--synthetic chemicals found in pesticides like DDT, some fuels, plastics, detergents, and pharmaceutical drugs. We know that estrogen binds with receptors in mammary glands, signaling cells to grow. In 1993, scientists at Cornell University cautioned that growing evidence seemed to indicate that exposure to estrogen-mimicking chemicals, called xenoestrogens, can cause cells to rapidly grow out of control and form tumors. It has been postulated that xenoestrogens may be responsible for increasing a woman's chances of getting breast cancer. Researchers at Tufts University Medical School have demonstrated that xenoestrogens make human breast cancer cells grow in the laboratory, just as natural estrogen does.

There are also studies that show drastic changes in development, particularly in the reproductive system, when laboratory mice are exposed to estrogen mimickers during critical windows of vulnerability in utero. When cells are rapidly developing and proliferating, there can be a key period of vulnerability during which damaging or altering cell development can lead to cancer. Other windows of vulnerability include puberty and a woman's first pregnancy.

Studies tracking patterns of breast cancer development in humans also strongly suggest the influence of environmental factors. In Asia, women are four to seven times less likely to develop breast cancer than women in the U.S. Yet when Asian women migrate to the U.S., their risk of breast cancer rises over a two-generation span. Women who live in the U.S. for a decade or more have an 80 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than more recent immigrants, and those whose grandparents were born in the U.S. have a 60 percent greater risk than women whose grandparents were born overseas.

Estrogen mimickers may be either beneficial or detrimental. Estrogen-mimicking compounds found in foods such as broccoli, soy products, and cauliflower may act as "good" estrogens, providing some protection against the effects of estradiol, the chief "bad" estrogen, made naturally by our bodies. Critics of the "xenoestrogen theory" argue that these beneficial compounds found in foods can balance possible hazards posed by human-made chemicals. Other scientists point out that the human body has been fine-tuned to handle plant estrogens through thousands of years of evolution, while human-made estrogen mimickers have been in the environment only since the 1940s. Since we do not yet understand how women's natural estrogen affects breast cancer, it is difficult to predict how estrogen mimickers might behave, even at low doses.

Studies have identified the presence of more than 200 foreign chemicals in women's breast milk, including significant levels of dioxin, a carcinogen that has been shown to disrupt children's hormone systems. Within six months of being breast-fed, a baby in the U.S. or Europe receives the maximum recommended lifetime dose of dioxin. CONTINUED>>