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Bold Questions about Breast Cancer Prevention

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How many of your family or friends have endured breast cancer or some other type of cancer?  If you’re like me, you’ve lost count.  We’ve somehow come to accept that cancer is a normal part of life.  Why? As women, we each now have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer over a lifetime.  How?  Industrialized North America and Western Europe have higher rates of breast cancer than women elsewhere in the world.  So many unanswered questions.

Somewhere between losing my mother to a rather mysterious form of cancer and arriving at the big 40 myself, I was lulled into the false security that having a mammogram for my 40th birthday would help me “prevent” breast cancer.  I was well intentioned, but not necessarily correct.

Author Florence Williams of the book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, explained during a webinar with the Breast Cancer Fund, “For years we’ve been taught that mammography was prevention. There have been such huge extensive campaigns talking about breast cancer awareness and talking about mammography.  We now know that those are big disappointments unfortunately because mammography is very imperfect detection technology. It doesn’t really work well in women who are under 50, it has questionable benefits for women who are over  50. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get them. It’s something that women should discuss with their doctors, based on their risk. I still get mammograms. But where are the resources for actual prevention? Because once you detect a tumor on a mammogram, you already have a tumor. Really we should be looking at what’s causing that tumor in the first place and if possible trying to do something about it.”

Williams was a special guest of the Breast Cancer Fund for a talk in its Prevention Speaks webinar series.  Her book includes both a curious and critical look at breasts.  Williams related that the average cup size has grown from a B just about 15 years ago to over a C cup now.  “Obesity doesn’t really seem to explain the whole phenomenon.  It could very well be that environment plays a role.”

Perhaps the most alarming details in Williams’ book are about what she discovered when she had her own breastmilk tested.  She says she was shocked that the lab found traces of pesticides, flame retardant and a jet fuel ingredient. She supports breastfeeding as the best nutrition for babies, yet expressed concern that some public health officials would consider changing breastfeeding guidelines based on trace contaminants.  “Wouldn’t it be better if we could just clean up the environment and then we could take this really perfect human food and keep using it the way we’re supposed to be using it?”
*This blog is not intended to provide medical or professional advice of any kind.  Consult your medical professional with questions about your own health and wellness, including cancer risk, prevention and detection.
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