October marks breast cancer awareness month, a time to be mindful of what we can do to be proactive in fighting this disease. Part of a proactive approach is being screened, knowing the early signs and symptoms and taking steps to avoid the known risk factors.
While great advances have been made in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer and survival rates are better today, there are still many mysteries especially when it comes to understanding the underlying causes and risk factors.
Here is what we do know. There are risk factors that we have control over such as alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, being obese or overweight and use of hormone therapy.
There are also factors that we can’t change, including:
- Gender – being female
- Age – over age 55
- Race – Caucasian women face a greater risk
- Family history – having a first degree relative such as mother or sister increases risk
- Your own history of breast cancer
- Dense breast tissue
- Early onset of menses (before age 12) and late menopause (after age 55)
- Genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2
Yet, according to the National Breast Cancer foundation, 60-70% of people with breast cancer have no connection to these risk factors at all, and other people with these risk factors will never develop cancer.
The fact that the majority of women diagnosed today with breast cancer do not have any of these known risk factors has lead researchers to investigate the possible environmental influences, including the chemicals that we are exposed to that can have hormone-like effects in the body.
Of particular interest are the chemicals that are present in personal care products such as skin lotions, deodorants, hair care products and sunscreens. According to the Environmental Working Group the average woman uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing 168 different chemicals. These chemicals can be absorbed through your skin, your scalp and even your nails, causing potentially dangerous effects on your health.
Here are three groups of chemicals to be aware of and avoid:
These chemicals are found in cosmetics and personal care products. They are used as preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold. Research has found that they can act like estrogen in the body and mounting evidence suggests their use may increase the risk of breast cancer. These chemicals can bind to estrogen receptors in the body and cause breast tumor cells to grow and proliferate. When reading labels, avoid products that contain methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and other relatives with “paraben” in the name.
A group of chemicals found in cosmetics, nail polish, plastics and household cleaners parabens are readily absorbed through the skin and are known to be endocrine-disruptors. Exposure to phthalates has been linked to birth defects, fertility problems, and breast cancer. One study found that women who worked in an environment with high phthalate exposure had a nearly fivefold increase in risk of breast cancer.[1. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-11-87.] Phthalates can be hidden in many products under the term “fragrance.” Read labels carefully and look for products “free of phthalates.”
We use sunscreen to ward off skin cancer and premature aging, however mounting evidence suggests that the chemicals present in many sunscreens have estrogen-like effects on the body and may play a role in the development of breast cancer. The most dangerous offenders are the chemicals: oxybenzone, octyl-methoxycinnamate, and homosalate, which are present in hundreds of mainstream sunscreen products. Instead of using these chemical sunscreens look for a product that contains mineral-based ingredients, such as zinc and titanium dioxide. These minerals act as a physical barrier and reflect the sun’s rays. Also avoid sunscreens that contain the ingredient retinyl palmitate. This vitamin A compound was initially thought to combat skin aging however studies suggest it may actually trigger the development of skin tumors when used on skin in the presence of sunlight.