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Report Identifies Obesity, Hormones as Major Breast Cancer Risks

  • Vidushi Sinha

A breast cancer patient undergoes a mammography examination in a hospital in Athens, Greece, October 2008. (file photo)

A breast cancer patient undergoes a mammography examination in a hospital in Athens, Greece, October 2008. (file photo)

A new medical report cautions women that obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, overexposure to medical X-rays and hormone treatments during menopause can raise their risk of developing breast cancer. But critics say the report fails to emphasize the cancer-causing impact of many industrial chemicals and environmental pollutants - factors they believe could pose greater breast-cancer risks to women than their lifestyle choices.

The authors of the new report, "Breast Cancer and the Environment: A Life Course Approach," acknowledge that the environment they refer to is more narrowly defined than people might assume. They say it is not the pollutants in the air and water that women should worry about most when it comes to cancer-risk.

“A lot of it is what we may not typically think of as an environment, but is our most important environment. What we eat, how much weight we gain that’s the cause - of eat, exercise, avoiding radiations - things that we have known for a long time to contribute to breast cancer risk,” said Dr. Kathy Helzelsouer of the Mercy Medical Center.

Helzelsouer is one of the co-authors of the report, published by the federally-chartered Institute of Medicine in Washington. She said weight and obesity matter because fat cells produce estrogen and that hormone fuels the growth of most breast cancers.

The report's authors say it urges new measures to protect women from one of the most common types of cancer affecting women.

“There is a call for action to really put into practice... things that we know will help. So one of those things is to minimize [exposure to] radiation, especially in adolescence and when the breast is developing," reads the report.

“This report was devoid of any call to action - was devoid of anything new,” said Laura Anderko, who is a public health scientist at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington. She said the report's narrow definition of the term environment is misleading.

“To suggest that obesity and drinking alcohol are environmental risk factors, I think, really misinforms people or confuses people and creates an idea that there is an individual responsibility to why people get cancer," said Anderko. "For people who have suffered from breast cancer or family members or loved ones, it is frustrating and confusing, and creates a sense of hopelessness.”

Anderko wishes the report had been more robust and provocative, and targeted government and industry roles in reducing women's breast-cancer risks.

Helzelsour stands by the report's conclusions.

“I have taught about cancer epidemiology and cancer research for many years, and I would teach one of the risk factors and one of the environmental exposures is our diet,” said Helzelsour.

The report's critics say it is a missed opportunity, though, to urge stricter standards for testing new chemicals and regulating environmental pollutants that could pose significant breast-cancer risks.