Focus on Preventing Cancer

by Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., is president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund

To what lengths will women go to prevent breast cancer from striking their lives and robbing them of time spent with loved ones?

On Tuesday Angelina Jolie informed the world that she underwent an elective double mastectomy. As a carrier of the "breast cancer gene" mutation, or BRCA, Jolie reports that she has now reduced her risk of developing breast cancer from 87 percent to under five. "I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer," Jolie wrote in the New York Times.

Thousands of women each year face decisions like Jolie's. But what if fewer women had to?

The inherited mutation in the BRCA gene that Jolie carries is relatively rare. Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer incidences have a genetic link, meaning that the vast majority of breast-cancer cases diagnosed cannot be attributed to an unfortunate family inheritance. And for women with the BRCA gene mutation, those born after 1940 have a tripled risk of breast cancer at age 50 than women born before 1940.

What has happened to cause such a change within a generation? What factors trigger the cancer to develop? And why do so many women with no genetic history get breast cancer?

Decades of scientific evidence points to modern living as a major culprit. In our daily lives we are exposed to toxic chemicals and radiation from a wide range of sources, including cleaning and personal-care products, plastics, food, air, water, medical treatments, our workplaces and our neighborhoods. A large and growing body of scientific evidence tells us that some of these exposures can increase breast-cancer risk. I was part of a federal advisory committee that in February released a report concluding that identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer presents the greatest opportunity to prevent the disease and calling for a national prevention plan.

It is a great failure of the more-than-40-year-old "War on Cancer" that such a national prevention plan doesn't exist. So, in the absence of a strong national commitment to finding out why so many women get breast cancer, the burden of trying to prevent the disease falls on the shoulders of individual women making difficult choices.

That burden is unacceptable. We need to develop a federal research agenda that prioritizes investment in the study of chemical agents that contribute to the disease, and public health measures to reduce exposures. Congress and businesses need to end the public health disaster that permits chemicals to be found in everyday products such as cosmetics, lotions, household cleaners, and canned foods. Steps must be taken to protect young girls from entering puberty too early. We must prioritize finding a new tool to test for breast cancer, rather than dosing women with radiation, which causes cancer.

Jolie said she felt empowered that she made a "strong choice" for her life. Let's be inspired by her strength and bravery. Let's commit to making a national prevention strategy that will mean that our daughters can focus their bravery and strength in other areas.


Photo: Malena Rubinkas