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A Survivor's Story: Did Modern Life Give Me Breast Cancer?

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When I was nine months pregnant, my midwife found a lump in my breast. She thought it was a clogged milk duct, but she suggested I consult a doctor just to be certain. I wasn’t concerned. I was a healthy 32 year old who exercised regularly, ate organic muesli every morning, and took my prenatal vitamins without fail. When the doctor wanted to perform a biopsy, I reminded myself that grandmothers got breast cancer, not young women pregnant with their first baby. I wasn’t even alarmed when the doctor saw the lump on an ultrasound machine and said, "You might want to bring your husband when you come back for the biopsy results."

A week later, I returned with my husband and learned I had breast cancer. Nothing had prepared me for this diagnosis. No one in my family had breast cancer. No one I knew under 40 had breast cancer. When I finally caught my breath, I asked the question every cancer patient wants to know: why me?

My doctor didn’t have an answer, but as Florence Williams describes in her new book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (reviewed in the Summer 2012 issue of OnEarth), scientists are shedding new light on what may be causing the disease -- and what they’re finding is scary for everyone who lives in our modern world.

They can’t work fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. The incidence of breast cancer is on the rise. Women born in the 1960s are twice as likely to get breast cancer as their grandmothers. Each year one million women get diagnosed with the disease, and researchers expect the number to grow 20 percent by 2020. Only about 10 percent of cases are thought to be due to hereditary risk, Williams writes. Lifestyle choices such as delayed childbirth play a role, but exposure to toxic chemicals does as well. In a groundbreaking report released in 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel said that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated."

Williams views the spike in breast cancer as a warning sign. Breasts "are a particularly fine mirror of our industrial lives. They accumulate more toxins than other organs and process them differently," she writes. They reveal something about the hazards of modern life, and we should pay attention.

Breast tissue acts like a sponge that soaks up and stores many of the chemicals our bodies encounter. Those toxins can linger for decades, causing malfunctions and even getting passed on to our children. When Williams was nursing her second child, she sent her breast milk to a lab in Germany and discovered it contained elevated levels of flame-retardants -- a class of chemicals known to cause developmental delays, reproductive disorders, and cancer -- and perchlorate, an ingredient in jet fuel that disrupts hormone function.

Where do these chemicals come from? The Environmental Working Group found perchlorate in the drinking water sources of more than 7 million Californians and also in lettuce, milk, and other food. Flame retardants are present in furniture, foam pillows, car seats, and countless other articles of modern life. Last fall, California listed one common flame retardant as a known carcinogen but didn’t outlaw it.

In other words, cancer-causing chemicals are all around us.

I gave birth to my son 10 days after I was diagnosed. Becoming a parent at the same time I became a cancer patient made me fiercely protective: I never wanted my child to suffer the anguish of this disease. I vowed to keep him safe from as many cancer triggers as I could.

When he was about three years old, however, I started learning about Bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic, nearly ubiquitous form of estrogen. Estrogen feeds breast cancer, and, indeed, BPA has been proven to cause normal breast cells to behave like cancer cells and has also been linked to prostate cancer, lower sperm counts, and early puberty. BPA is everywhere: in plastic water bottles, food containers, and baby bottles -- the same bottles I had used to feed my son when he was a baby. Because I had to start chemotherapy soon after he was born, I couldn’t nurse him. Several times a day for more than a year, he ate formula from bottles containing BPA.

Once I learned its hazards, I avoided BPA as much as possible. But as Williams discovered, searching out safer products isn’t always enough. She decided to conduct an experiment with another known group of toxins: she and her seven-year-old daughter had their urine tested for phthalates, hormone disruptors linked to reproductive disorders and cancer. Then they spent a week trying to steer clear of products with phthalates, including certain shampoos, lotions, and plastic food containers. At the end of the week, they tested their urine again. Their detox reduced their chemical load but by no means removed it. Williams still had more than twice the average American adult’s level of MBP, a phthalate associated with genital abnormalities in humans and atypical mammary growth in male rats. Her daughter’s level of another phthalate dropped only 5 percent after the detox. "What these tests tell us," Williams concluded, "is how stunningly easy it is to get relatively high levels of biologically active chemicals into one’s body."

This ongoing exposure is demoralizing to other cancer survivors I know. We work so hard to fight the disease: we get our scans, we take supplements, we juice. Because breast cancer is fueled by estrogen, I avoid medication with hormones in it. I don’t even eat tofu because it contains natural estrogen. But what good does that do if my organic beans come in cans lined with BPA?

Even if I avoid canned food, I may not be able to find a car free of flame retardants or a school lunch tray without BPA. Consumer power alone can’t protect us from these chemicals. And no matter how many pink-ribbon walks we do, cancer survivors alone can’t force companies to stop putting these toxins in everyday products. We need the government to step in and do its job.

"In the United States," Williams writes, "every chemical is assumed safe until proven guilty."  Yet few chemicals ever go on trial. There are more than 80,000 manmade chemicals used in the United States, but the Environmental Protection Agency has required only 200 of them to be tested and only 5 to be regulated.

And to make matters worse, current protocol doesn’t require companies to examine what chemicals do to mammary glands. For the small fraction of chemicals tested, scientists look at cancer risk for liver, thyroid, kidney, and brain, while ignoring the highly sensitive breast. In my work writing for NRDC, I have gotten to know some of the scientists leading an effort to include mammary glands in testing protocols and to prioritize testing for chemicals most like to cause mammary tumors -- research that may someday help protect the daughter I was lucky to have three years after my diagnosis.

With so many toxic chemicals swirling around us and so few studies, it’s nearly impossible to determine which ones may have contributed to my breast cancer. There is one thing I do know though. The experiences of losing my hair, undergoing weeks of radiation, lying awake worrying if the cancer had spread, and wondering if I would live to see my son enter kindergarten taught me something both obvious and hard won: if tools exist to prevent others from suffering this fate, we must use them. If forcing companies to find safer ways to make shampoo and plastic water bottles will reduce our cancer risk, we must do it.

Anyone who has sat in a doctor’s office and heard the words, "You have cancer," would tell you the same. My risk of hearing those words again remains high -- if the cells in your breast go haywire once, they are likely to do it again. As much as I want to avoid another cancer diagnosis, it’s even more important for me to protect my children from one. I suspect any parent would tell you the same.

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Emily Cousins blogs about life after cancer for young survivors at Stupidcancer.com. She also writes about climate change, clean energy, and toxins in the environment for NRDC. After four years exploring the redrock desert, she and her family now liv... READ MORE >
Yes breast cancer is on the rise. So is prolonged use of Estrogen birth control pills. There was a study awhile ago (10 years or more) where the doctor found a link to the pill and breast cancer. At the time, they said don't panic, it was just one study and more was needed. Never heard of any more. Breast cancer, like pancreatic and cancer of the uterous are what my female gyno called hormonal cancers. Just something to think about.
This is so well written. It really says it all. Now, if we could only do something about it. At age 29 and pregnant with my son I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. My son was born shortly after my diagnosis. Like you, I'm lucky to still be here, and try to prevent my children from this type of diagnosis. It's terribly hard to understand our governments priorities sometimes. If our generation is unable to chance the way things are now, perhaps our children will be able to in the future. LaDonna Dennis
Thank you so much for writing this. It was very thorough and well written. Something needs to be done. Nothing will change unless we as consumers demand the change. I like you, lay awake worried about a recurrence. More importantly, I worry about my boys getting diagnosed.
Godspeed on your recovery. It's quite possible that there is an environmental component to your breast cancer, however, if you live within 100 miles of a nuclear power or other nuclear facility. See the books written by Jay Gould, PhD, co-founder of the Radiation and Public Health Project (The Enemy Within; also see Deadly Deceit) with much statistical analysis, mapping, etc., on this topic. Knowledge is power.
This also applies to testicular cancer. There have been several studies linking all these chemicals to testicular cancer. Which is also linked to low sperm count and other abnormalities in the male reproductive system.