Breast cancer rates continue to rise in the U.S.—even beyond the extra cancers detected through mammography and other screening techniques—and researchers need to focus more of their attention on finding ways to prevent the cancer including identifying environmental causes. That recommendation was made in a 270-page report issued Tuesday by the federal government’s Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee.
The expert panel from the National Cancer Institute and elsewhere lamented that research into identifying causes of breast cancer, including the role of certain hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastics, has lagged far behind advances in diagnosis and treatment. What is known: Both genes and lifestyle factors—such as obesity, excess alcohol consumption, dense breasts, lack of exercise, and radiation exposure—can contribute to breast cancer risk.
But researchers still don’t fully understand how those things interact with each other to influence a woman’s likelihood of developing a malignancy, especially one that will spread quickly and potentially kill her. For example, they don’t know why Japanese women have higher breast cancer rates after they immigrate to America; it’s clearly not due to a change in their genetics, but is it related to a change in their diet, activity levels, or environmental exposures to pesticides or pollutants?
Increasing knowledge about potential breast cancer risks—especially the role of certain environmental chemicals—won’t be possible without better research funding, according to the report.
“At most, 10 to 11 percent of breast cancer research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) focus on environmental health,” wrote the report authors. “No other federal agency supports substantial research on the environmental causes of breast cancer.”
One of the report authors told the New York Times that it would be ideal to eventually have a vaccine to prevent breast cancer like the HPV vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer, but the report also acknowledged that breast cancer is far more complex and likely not caused by a single factor, like a virus.
A more realistic goal to shoot for, perhaps, is improved coordination among researchers in the government and academic world to identify breast cancer causes. “Government agencies must do more to support the creation of a breast cancer research workforce that can work effectively in the multidisciplinary teams to understand the full complexity of breast cancer,” wrote the report authors, “and the environment interactions and make progress toward filling knowledge gaps.”
Let’s hope that happens soon.
Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.