Breast Cancer Awareness: Beyond the Pink

Breast Cancer Awareness

It’s October – time to get out your pink tutu, put on your tiara, and fight for more breast cancer awareness.

When I started writing my book Leave Cancer in the Dust: 50 Tips to Prevent Breast Cancer and Supercharge Your Health” in October 2013, it was a direct response to my frustration about Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) and the thousands of events held each year in the name of “awareness.”

My first issue with BCAM is its origin. BCAM was started in the mid 1980s in an effort to promote mammography by Astra Zeneca, a pharmaceutical company that sells both cancer treatments and cancer-causing chemicals.

Unfortunately, mammography is not a perfect detection tool.

First, mammography exposes women to radiation. While many debate whether or not this exposure is dangerous, according to The Breast Cancer Fund there is considerable evidence that medical X-rays such as mammography are an important and controllable cause of breast cancer.

Second, mammography’s effectiveness in identifying tumors in women with dense breast tissue, a condition that affects approximately 40 percent of women of mammography age, is questionable. Women with this condition can be up to six times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density. However, one study of 335 cancers seen only on screening ultrasound found that 78 percent were obscured by dense tissue on mammography.  

Third, in women for which mammography works, the technology has actually gotten so good that it is detecting tiny tumors, many of which would never have developed to a harmful size. Yet, evidence suggests women in the U.S. are being overtreated with too much chemo, too much radiation, and way too many mastectomies for potentially harmless tumors.

The controversy around mammography is so prevalent that in 2013 the Swiss Medical Board chose to stop recommending new systematic mammography screening programs and place a time limit on existing programs. The group cited that it was “struck by how nonobvious it was that the benefits of mammography screening outweighed the harms.”

None of this is to say that all mammograms in all situations are bad–they have certainly saved countless lives. But these issues are rarely discussed during the month of October.

October has become far too much about pink ribbons and blatant consumerism rather than addressing the bigger issue. Artificially sweetened yogurt, candy, alcoholic drinks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, toxic beauty products, useless trinkets – even handguns! – have been adorned with the ubiquitous pink ribbon. Nothing, no matter how egregious, seems to be off limits.

Adding insult to injury, companies profit greatly from slapping a pink ribbon on an item and promising to donate to the cause. The problem is no one is monitoring how much, or even if, the company is actually donating. There are currently no regulations whatsoever covering the use of pink ribbons in marketing.

And last but certainly not least, one of my biggest concerns about BCAM is that prevention is rarely discussed in any real way.

The truth is, in many cases, breasts become diseased because of toxic diet, environment, and lifestyle choices. A 2008 study conducted at M.D. Anderson concluded that 90-95 percent of cancers are rooted in environment and lifestyle. Only five to ten percent of breast cancers are genetic in nature. Breast tissue is the proverbial canary in the coal mine; it is extremely sensitive to its environment and soaks up toxins like a sponge. It’s no wonder one study found parabens, a toxic class of chemical commonly found in beauty products and some food, in 99 percent of the breast tumors studied. Sixty percent of the women had five different types of parabens in their tumors.

What the world needs is for companies to stop producing products that cause cancer. The world needs these same companies to stop polluting our water and our air. And the world needs doctors and oncologists to start telling their patients that yes, there is something you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer. And since that’s all not likely to happen anytime soon, we must make prevention part of the conversation, and part of our everyday lives.

Currently, one in eight women will experience breast cancer in her lifetime. According to recent estimates, the number of new breast cancer cases in the U.S. is expected to climb by 50 percent by the year 2030. That’s a 50 percent increase in just 15 years. (Some, but clearly not all, of this increase will be due to the population increase during that time period.)

What can you do?

First and foremost, you can stop listening to those who tell you there’s nothing you can do! 

Second, you can change your diet to incorporate more whole foods and fewer processed, sugary foods. You can also lose weight, drink less alcohol, get more physical activity (movement, not just exercise, matters), avoid toxins in your home and personal environment (including beauty and personal care products), and reduce your stress.

This isn’t about blame; it’s about empowerment. You simply may not have been told about some of these factors that may be  harming you. However, now that you know you can drastically change your health for the better and significantly reduce your risk of getting breast cancer by changing your lifestyle.

Kristina Sampson is a breast cancer survivor and Certified Health Coach who focuses on the effects of nutrition, exercise, environment, and mindfulness on our health. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States in Portland, OR. Kristina runs the website “The Vail Diet and is the author of “Leave Cancer in the Dust: 50 Tips to Prevent Breast Cancer and Supercharge Your Health.”

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