Common Chemicals: Breast Cancer Link?
Experts discuss whether chemicals in our environment have a connection to the risk of breast cancer.
The Role of Genetics
While every woman has at least the potential to succumb to environmental
influences, not every one will. What makes the difference? Our genetics -- the
individual blueprint that governs how every cell in our body is supposed to
"Inside each cell is all our genetic material -- the total number of
genes from both parents," says Smith. The genes that are
"expressed," she says, are those that we see -- for example, blue eyes
or brown hair.
But what we see is only a small portion of our genetic makeup. Most of what
is in our cells is "unexpressed" -- including our risk for certain
And while there are some clear-cut genetic links to breast cancer that a
woman can inherit, this group makes up a relatively small segment of the breast
What is likely to affect many more of us, says Smith, is a genetic
predisposition -- a gene that is lying dormant in our body that, when awakened
by some circumstance, increases the risk for breast cancer.
"Once the gene is aroused, it begins to express itself -- and that
expression can cause the kind of cellular changes that eventually lead to
cancer," says Smith.
Many believe that it is environmental exposures -- including chemicals --
that can awaken at least some of those dormant genes and put a woman on the
cellular path to breast cancer.
Reducing Risks: What Women Can Do
While we can't change our genetics, experts say we can, to some extent,
control our environment.
And while you may be thinking this means avoiding carcinogens -- chemicals
known to cause cancer -- experts say when it comes to breast cancer, of far
greater concern is exposure to what are called "endocrine disrupters."
These are chemicals and byproducts that, when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed
through the skin, can either mimic the effects of estrogen in the body or cause
estrogen to act in a way that isn't normal.
Since it is estrogen that can spark the growth of many tumors, Gray says
anything that interferes with estrogen metabolism has the potential to cause
"These chemicals cause a 'triple whammy' -- they increase levels of
estrogen, alter cell metabolism, and influence the pathways that increase the
risk of cancer," says Gray.
Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer
Based on a recent study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, cancer
researcher Philippa Darbre, PhD, of the University of Reading in England, says
the evidence is mounting that the aluminum-based active ingredient in
antiperspirants can mimic estrogen in the body.
At the same time, in a report released in 2004, officials with the National
Cancer Institute wrote that there was "no conclusive research" linking
the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants to breast cancer.
And the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that most research on
environmental links to breast cancer remains unproven and that research linking
deodorant use to breast cancer remains weak.