Many Things CAN Make a Difference With Breast Cancer
“Advances Elusive in the Long Drive to Cure Cancer” by Gina Kolata’s on the front page of the New York Times seemed to cast a depressing shadow across the busy landscape of dedicated researchers, clinicians and patients who are fighting the war on cancer all across the country.
She remarked, “only a very few things make a difference” – to which I would reply, NOT SO! Kolata pointed out that deaths from cardiac disease have fallen 64% in the past 55 years (primarily because many Americans have stopped smoking, altered their diets, increased their physical activity and taken medications that are known to decrease their risk of heart attacks and stroke) but, by comparison, cancer deaths have dropped by only 5%. But what have Americans done to understand more fully the causes cancer and what have we done to aggressively prevent the disease? Not much, I’d say.
Let me speak from my own professional perspective about breast cancer.
In 2005, the World Health Organization declared birth control pills to be Group I carcinogens, known to cause cancer in humans. Yet every day around the world 100 million women take the pill, and everyday they excrete the hormone metabolites of these pills into our shared environment. The package inserts that the FDA requires in every pack of oral contraceptives fails to mention the WHO warning; instead the insert equivocates about the risk of breast cancer, crafting a message that seemingly minimizes the danger. What could be done to better educate women about this risk and thus prevent new cases of breast cancer? Better education about the increased risk of breast cancer associated with the use of oral contraceptives would obviously be a cost-effective way to prevent it, saving money, lives, and breasts in the process.
In 2003 when medical researchers concluded that hormone replacement therapy directly causes breast cancer millions of women (themselves) promptly stopped taking these pills. Within just a few years the number of new cases of breast cancer began to fall. Where is the public policy that supports this wise, spontaneous grass-roots movement away from HRT? Are we waiting for stone tablets to appear from behind a burning bush with a new commandment, “Don’t use exogenous hormones”?
Cigarette smoking has long been known to cause breast cancer. Why are there no aggressive anti-smoking policies and initiatives in place, either by our public health officials or by the large and impressively organized breast cancer foundations, to combat this known breast cancer carcinogen?
The “fads” that Kolata suggested including the belief that viruses are possible causes of cancer, ARE NOT FADs. At least six viruses have been proven to cause cancer – one of them, the human papilloma virus, now has a vaccine that prevents the cervical cancer it causes, and its discoverers have Nobel Prizes for their work. Furthermore, there is convincing evidence that as much as 40% of all breast cancer is caused by a virus. Kolata is right, “just eating right and exercising” won’t help you much if you have a virus that causes breast cancer, so we need to do more to investigate this possibility, and we shouldn’t have to wait several more decades before we answer the question, “Does a virus cause breast cancer in women?”
Did Phyllis Kutt, the woman with end-stage breast cancer who was featured in Kolata’s article, ever use oral contraceptives? Did she bump into the mountain of hormonal metabolites circulating in our environment? Did a virus cause her breast cancer? If we can answer these questions, and others, we can move out of the shadow cast by Kolata’s article and into the sunshine where we prevent cancer. We need to more than walk, run, dance and hope for a cure – we need to understand its causes and prevent it.
President Obama has decided that he wants to increase funding for cancer research by 30% over the next two years. Good. Excellent idea. My suggestion is that the money be spent researching ways to get the information we presently have about how to prevent cancer circulating more effectively, rather than to spend it trying to find clever (and always expensive) interventions that may only postpone cancer death by just a few weeks.