RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #723
---April 26, 2001---
WHAT CAUSES BREAST CANCER?
Breast cancer kills 46,000 women in the U.S. each year. On
average, each of these women has her life cut short by 20 years,
for a total loss of about a million person-years of productive
life each year. Of course this huge cost to society is heaped on
even greater burdens, the personal anguish and suffering, the
motherless children, the shattered families.
The medical establishment dominated by male doctors pretends that
the breast cancer epidemic will one day be reversed by some
miracle cure, which we have now been promised for 50 years. Until
that miracle arrives, we are told, there is nothing to be done
except slice off women's breasts, pump their bodies full of toxic
chemicals to kill cancer cells, burn them with radiation, and
bury our dead.
Meanwhile, the normal public health approach
primary prevention languishes without mention and without
funding. We know what causes the vast majority of cancers:
exposure to carcinogens. What would a normal public health
approach entail? Reduce the burden of cancer by reducing our
exposure to carcinogens.
One key idea has defined public health
for more than 100 years: PREVENTION.
But with cancer, everything
is different. In the case of cancer, prevention has been banished
from polite discussion.
Now a new, fully-documented book, by physician Janette D.
Sherman, poses a fundamental challenge to all the doctors and
researchers and health bureaucrats who have turned their backs on
cancer prevention: "If cancers are not caused by chemicals,
endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and ionizing radiation, what are
How else can one explain the doubling, since 1940, of
a woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer, increasing in
tandem with prostate and childhood cancers?," Dr. Sherman
asks.(pg. x) And if exposures are the problem, then ending
exposures is the solution: "Actual prevention means eliminating
factors that cause cancer in the first place."(pg. 31)
Dr. Sherman is a practicing physician who has treated 8000
patients over 30 years. Unlike most physicians, she possesses an
extensive knowledge of chemistry. Furthermore, she has become a
historian by examining a large body of medical and public health
literature dating back to the 19th century.
It is this unique
combination -- of historical view, knowledge of chemistry, deep
personal experience as a physician, and an ethical clarity that
PRIMARY PREVENTION is the proper policy -- that makes this book
important and compelling.
The book begins with two chapters emphasizing the similarities
among all living things that are made up of cells including
humans, animals and plants. Cells in every creature can go awry
and start to grow uncontrollably, a definition of cancer. Because
all cell-based creatures are so similar, what we learn from one
can often tell us something useful about another.
when we learn from the Smithsonian Institution that sharks get
cancer from swimming in waters contaminated with industrial
chemicals, we learn (or SHOULD learn) something useful about our
own vulnerability to exotic chemicals.(pg. 9)
Turning to breast cancer, Dr. Sherman lists the known "risk
factors" the common characteristics shared by many women who get
breast cancer: early menarche (age at which menstruation begins);
late menopause (age at which menstruation ends); late childbirth
and the birth of few or no children; no experience
breast-feeding; obesity; high fat diet; being tall; having cancer
of the ovaries or uterus; use of oral contraceptives; excessive
use of alcohol.
"What is the message running through all of these 'risks?'" Dr.
Sherman asks. "Hormones, hormones, and hormones. Hormones of the
wrong kind, hormones too soon in a girl's life, hormones for too
many years in a woman's life, too many chemicals with hormonal
action, and too great a total hormonal load."(pg. 20)
Dr. Sherman then turns her focus to the one fully-established
cause of breast (and other) cancers: ionizing radiation, from
x-rays, and from nuclear power plant emissions and the
radioactive fallout from A-bomb tests.
These, then, are the environmental factors that give rise to
breast cancer: exposures to cancer-causing chemicals, to
hormonally-active chemicals, and to ionizing radiation in air,
food and water. How do we know the environment air, food, water
and ionizing radiation plays an important role in causing breast
cancer? Because when Asian women move from their homelands to the
U.S., their breast cancer rate soars.
There is something in the
environment of the U.S. (and other western industrial countries)
causing an epidemic of this hormone-related disease. The medical
research establishment likes to call it "lifestyle factors" but
it's really environment. Air, food, water, ionizing radiation.
With this basic information in hand, Dr. Sherman then describes
historically and today the exposure of women in the U.S. to a
flood of carcinogenic and hormonally active chemicals, plus
Take common pharmaceutical products, for example. Canadian
researchers have demonstrated enhanced cancer growth in mice
given daily HUMAN-EQUIVALENT doses of three commonly-used
antihistamines, which are sold under the trade names Claritin,
Histamil and Atarax.(pg. 21)
Two years earlier the same
researchers had reported breast cancer promotion in rodents fed
clinically-relevant doses of antidepressant drugs, which are
marketed as Elavil and Prozac.(pg. 21) Millions of women in the
U.S. are taking these drugs today.
At least 5 million women in the U.S. are currently taking
Premarin the most often-prescribed form of estrogen (female sex
hormone), to ease the transition through menopause.(pg. 156) This
is called "hormone replacement therapy" and it is routine,
recommended medical practice in the U.S. A review of 51 studies
of women taking hormone replacement therapy showed that those who
never took hormones had a breast cancer rate ranging from 18 to
63 per 1000 women.
Those who took hormones for five years showed
an excess of 2 breast cancers per 1000 women; after 10 years of
hormone therapy the excess breast cancer rate rose to 6 per 1000.
The danger largely disappears 5 years after discontinuing use.
Hormones are big business. Despite evidence that synthetic
hormones caused cancer in rodents and rabbits, American drug
companies began selling synthetic hormones in 1934 in cosmetics,
drugs, food additives, and animal feed. The best-known is DES
(diethylstilbestrol) but there were and still are many others.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1938 published a study
showing that DES caused breast cancer in rodents. Three years
later, in 1941, NCI published a second study confirming that DES
caused breast cancer in rodents. That year the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) approved DES for commercial use in
DES is 400 times as potent as natural estrogen and can be made
for pennies per pill. It was therefore phenomenally profitable
and researchers aggressively sought new uses. DES soon was being
used to prevent miscarriages, as a "morning after" pill to
prevent pregnancies, and as a breast-enlargement cream. It wasn't
long before researchers discovered that they could make chickens,
cows and pigs grow faster if they fed them hormones, and a huge
new market for hormones opened up.
As early as 1947, a hormonal
effect was reported among U.S. women who ate chicken treated with
growth hormones. (Chapter 7, note 55.) Between 1954 and 1973
three quarters of all beef cattle slaughtered in the U.S. grew
fat on DES.
In 1971, human cancer from DES exposure was confirmed and in 1973
DES was banned from meat, so other growth hormones were
substituted. Most recently, of course, the U.S. FDA has allowed
the U.S. milk supply to be modified to increase the levels of a
growth hormone (called IGF-1) known to stimulate growth of breast
cells in women. (pg. 101)
Still today most U.S. beef, chickens and pigs are intentionally
contaminated with growth hormones which is why Europeans refuse
to allow the import of U.S. beef. European scientists are asking
the same question that Dr. Sherman raises: "[H] ormones are
administered to meat animals to promote growth and weight gain.
Why should humans expect to not respond similarly to such
chemical stimuli?"(pgs. 16-17)
Then of course there are dozens probably, in fact hundreds of
household chemicals and industrial byproducts that are hormonally
active: pesticides, cleansers, solvents, plasticizers,
surfactants, dyes, cosmetics, PCBs, dioxins, and so forth, that
interfere with, or mimic, naturally-occurring hormones. We are
awash in these, at low levels, from conception until death.
How many growth-stimulating and cancer-promoting hormones can we
ingest or absorb through our lungs and skin before we feel the
effects? No one in authority is asking that crucial question, but
Janette Sherman is asking it, pointedly, and armed to the teeth
with scientific evidence.
Then there is radioactivity. In 1984, a study of Mormon families
in Utah downwind from the nuclear tests in Nevada reported
elevated numbers of breast cancers.(pg. 65) Girls who survived
the bombing of Hiroshima are now dying in excessive numbers from
Dr. John Gofman has reviewed 22 separate studies
confirming unequivocally that exposure to ionizing radiation
causes breast cancer. (See REHN #693.) Janette Sherman does a
good job of summarizing ecological studies showing that women
living near nuclear power plants suffer from elevated numbers of
breast cancers. These studies, by their nature, are suggestive
and not conclusive. but there is ample reason to believe that all
nuclear power plants leak radioactivity routinely into local air
and water and that any exposure to ionizing radiation increases a
woman's danger of breast cancer.
The only way to PREVENT this
problem is to end nuclear power permanently.
Why has the U.S. turned its back on the preventive approach to
cancer? Dr. Sherman returns to this question throughout her book.
For example, in a devastating chapter on Tamoxifen (a known
cancer-causing chemical now approved by U.S. FDA for use in
women), she asks, "Why is our primary well-funded National Cancer
Institute not devoting its efforts to primary prevention? Has
breast cancer, like so many aspects of our culture, become just
another business opportunity?"(pg. 149)
In the end, Dr. Sherman reaches a conclusion about that question:
"There is a massing, in a few hands, of the control of
production, distribution and use of pharmaceutical drugs and
appliances; control of the sale and use of medical and laboratory
tests; the consolidation and control of hospitals, nursing homes,
and home care providers.
We are no longer people who become sick.
We have become markets. Is it any wonder that prevention receives
so little attention? Cancer is a big and successful business!"
And, finally: "Reflecting on the purpose of the corporation to
sell products and services and maximize profits, it becomes
apparent that prevention cannot be in the interest of the bottom
line. What a sad and bitter realization," she concludes.(pg. 228)
Despite this sad and bitter conclusion, this is a powerful upbeat
book about what citizens can and must do to end the epidemic of
cancer that is sweeping the western world. If the truth shall set
us free, this book is an important part of our collective
liberation, freeing us from the lies and deceptions, the false
promises of cancer cures always "just around the corner." Cancer
is caused by exposure to carcinogens.
The way to solve the cancer
problem is to prevent exposures. This means we must end nuclear
power, and demand clean food, water and air. Janette Sherman's
contribution has been to give us a wealth of powerful evidence on
which to act. Now it is up to us.
 Janette D. Sherman, LIFE'S DELICATE BALANCE; THE CAUSES AND
PREVENTION OF BREAST CANCER (New York and London: Taylor and
Francis, 2000). ISBN 1-56032-870-3.
Thanks to Mid-Hudson Options Project
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