Your Environment May Increase Your Risk for Breast Cancer. Here’s How
A guest blog from Breast Cancer Action
Breast cancer has historically been known as a disease that only impacts “older” women. But the truth is that breast cancer is a complex disease that impacts people of all ages with varying outcomes for different communities. For example, one aggressive breast cancer subtype is more common in women younger than 40 years old, and more common in Black women.
Moreover, seventy percent of people with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors, such as late menopause, childbearing late in life, and family history of cancer. These risk factors are present in only 30 percent of breast cancer cases and there is growing scientific evidence that environmental exposures increase breast cancer risk.
As breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in the U.S., breast cancer is an urgent health crisis, and to address and end the epidemic, young people need to get involved and address environmental exposures and the root causes of the disease.
Because Health spoke with Breast Cancer Action (BCAction), a nonprofit committed to stopping breast cancer before it starts, about their work in reducing our involuntary exposures to toxics in the environment that are linked with breast cancer, and about how doing so is not only an act of environmental justice, but an act of racial justice as well.
Because Health: Can you tell me about Breast Cancer Action and what unique role you play in preventing breast cancer.
Tibby Reas Hinderlie, BCAction: While the mainstream breast cancer movement remains squarely focused on pink ribbons, “awareness” campaigns, and mammography screening, it fails to address the systemic and environmental issues at the heart of this epidemic.
BCAction is an activist, education, and advocacy organization, and we understand that systemic interventions are necessary in order to address the root causes of the disease and ensure that fewer people develop breast cancer, fewer people die from breast cancer, and no community bears a disproportionate burden from this disease. Our three programmatic priorities address the lack of transparency in pink ribbon marketing culture; issues of breast cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment; and primary prevention by exposing the root causes of breast cancer in our environmental policies.
Because Health: How do environmental exposures impact breast cancer risk?
BCAction: There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that toxic chemicals may increase our risk of developing the disease. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel reported that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated [and] . . . the American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”
There are over 85,000 synthetic chemicals on the market today. We are exposed to preservatives in our lipstick, flame retardants in our sofas, plasticizers in our water bottles, and pesticides on our fruits and vegetables, to name a few sources.
At BCAction we advocate for the precautionary principle of public health. These are guidelines for environmental decision making that call for us to determine safety based on the weight of the available evidence, because waiting for “absolute proof” is killing us. In the absence of scientific consensus, we need to adopt the highest standards, and take proactive steps to reduce our exposures to these toxins linked to increased breast cancer risk.
Because Health: How can we reduce our exposure to these environmental risks? What policies do we need to push for to ensure fewer people develop breast cancer in the future?
BCAction: We need systemic change if we are going to reduce our risk of environmental exposures, instead of relying on individual acts of risk reduction. Campaigns we’ve led that reflect this theory of change include our 2020 Think Before You Pink campaign, in which we demanded the Environmental Protection Agency stop environmental health rollbacks. We’ve also called for actions to dismantle the fossil fuel continuum, to include breaking free from plastics pollution, and we provide many educational and advocacy opportunities to phase out fossil fuel dependence.
We know that environmental justice is inextricable from health justice, and only large-scale systemic changes can address the root causes of this disease.
Because Health: You mentioned justice as part of your breast cancer work. How is breast cancer a social justice issue?
BCAction: Just as environmental factors have been largely ignored as possible risk factors for breast cancer, so have the complex issues of social inequities – political, economic and racial injustices. Disparities in breast cancer incidence, mortality, and survival are due to unequal burdens in who faces the forces of systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, and environmental injustices. That is, the extent and type of toxics we’re exposed to often depends on where we live and work.
In our fact sheet Why We Must Stop Fossil Fuels, we show how chemicals like benzene, dioxins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, and pesticides and herbicides are each produced along the fossil fuel continuum, and linked to increased breast cancer risk, and how Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately exposed to fossil fuel operations that produce these chemicals due to environmental racism.
Put simply – BIPOC communities bear the brunt of environmental exposures and are hit first and worst by chemical exposures like those produced by the fossil fuel continuum. These communities are therefore at increased risk for breast cancer due to environmental exposures. We know that racial bias in industrial zoning has led to communities of color being burdened with higher everyday exposures to pollution from fossil-fuel based industries, and that decades of racist urban planning practices have led to a greater concentration of highways, ports, and trainlines in communities of color.
Increased breast cancer risk may also be linked to the stress of racism and adverse childhood experiences, including living in segregated neighborhoods. In BCAction’s recent podcast episode Stress, Racism, and the Breast Cancer Connection, former Executive Director Karuna Jaggar and Dr. Lauren Ellman discuss how chronic stress, including the toll of systemic racism, explains some of the health impacts like increased breast cancer risk—even decades later.
BCAction is currently the community partner in an ongoing study, Linking Neighborhood and Individual Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to Breast Cancer. This study seeks answers to questions like: can where you live affect your breast cancer risk? If so, how? Is there something about living in a racially segregated neighborhood that contributes to more aggressive forms of breast cancer?
Because Health: What would you like young people to know about breast cancer?
BCAction: There is nothing inevitable about breast cancer. Breast Cancer Action’s badass, take-no-prisoners, truth-telling, unapologetic, passionate and intersectional methodology to addressing and ending this devastating disease draws on health justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. And we believe that together we can build a world where our lives and communities are not threatened by breast cancer, but it will take our collective action.