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Rachel Grewell

Breast cancer at 30: Is it something in the environment?
Used under creative commons license from visitflanders

Some of the hardest cases of breast cancer to treat manifest in those under the age of 40. These women tend to have more aggressive cases and lower survival rates than older women. Recently the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study finding a statistically significant increase in the incidence of breast cancer for women in the U.S. aged 25 to 39 years.

The study indicated several important factors associated with this increase, one being the estrogen receptor subtypes of  the women being diagnosed. Certain types of breast cancers are more responsive to estrogen, particularly the ER+ breast cancers that have estrogen receptors. There are two identified environmental variables associated with elevated levels of estrogen-mimicking compounds; living within close proximity of toxic air emissions and living in agricultural areas. Xenoestrogens are found in pesticides (like atrazine), industrial chemicals and consumer products, and have been found to bio-accumulate in the environment and our bodies. This study provides startling evidence connecting breast cancer rates with environmental factors, including pollutants that are known endocrine disruptors (St-Hilaire, et al. 2011).

The study’s grim prediction is that “an increasing number of young women in the United States will present with metastatic breast cancer in an age group that already has the worst prognosis, no recommended routine screening practice, the least health insurance, and the most potential years of life” (Johnson RH et. al.).

Yvette Hewitt, R.N. shares in her story,

Twenty years as a professional nurse did not prepare me for my own diagnosis of breast cancer in 2009. The questions of why and how could not be answered.  I followed all of the recommended guidelines for exercise, eating a balanced diet filled with grains, fruits, and vegetables, and maintain a healthy weight. This should not happen to a 30-something year-old young woman. But it did happen to me. My cancer had no genetic component. I believe that there is an environmental factor to the increasing rise of early breast cancers. Girls exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds have a greater chance of earlier puberty. Correlating research is connecting early puberty with the development of breast cancer. We are exposed to these substances (phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA)) daily from baby bottles, canned food linings, plastic food storage containers and our drinking water. 

The research shows that younger diagnosis of breast cancer is associated with toxic chemicals in our environment. These issues are becoming more important for increasinly younger populations as the impact of these chemicals tends to be more immediate and aggressive in developing children. For most who are diagnosed with breast cancer, we will never know the cause. Given the emerging science on the role of environmental factors in rising rates of breast cancer, public policies that prevent exposure to toxic chemicals are needed. Across the board, infants, children, mothers and grandmothers should find support in their state and federal lawmakers to make the health of the environment, and subsequently our bodies, a priority.

Hampton T. Genetic Studies Provide New Insights Into Breast Cancer Biology and Treatment. JAMA. 2013;309(5):427-429. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.196394.

Sophie St-Hilaire, Rakesh Mandal, Amy Commendador, Sylvio Mannel, DeWayne Derryberry. Int J Health Geogr. 2011; 10: 32. Published online 2011 May 10. doi: 10.1186/1476-072X-10-32.