Information on this webpage is drawn from our 2005 report: Breast cancer - an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention, available free as a pdf, see Downloads. For current statistics and data, see our homepage.For more than 100 years breast cancer has been recognised as a hormonally related disease that is influenced by environmental factors.
Breast cancer was a relatively rare condition until the mid-20th century, when incidence in industrialised countries began to rise significantly.
Breast cancer is a 'multi-factorial' disease, a term
'describing a condition that is believed to have resulted from the interaction of genetic factors, with environmental factor, or factors.'
Oxford Medical Dictionary
We tend to think of breast cancer as one type of cancer, when in fact there are many different types of breast cancer.
'Breast cancer is as diverse as the breast itself, appearing in many different guises.'
Risk is not a cause of illness. Risk is the result of exposure to a hazard, as in the formula:
HAZARD + EXPOSURE = RISK.
Clearly, if either hazard or exposure is missing from the equation, there is no risk.
'With the notable exception of ionising radiation and inherited genetic damage, none of the established risk factors for breast cancer directly cause the disease … Most … can be linked with increased lifetime exposure to oestrogen, other hormones, and higher exposures early in life.'Some important points about breast cancer risk factors:
Davis Axelrod Sasco Bailey Gaynor 1998
- most cannot be altered e.g. age
- some breast cancer risk factors relate to early-life exposures and changes e.g. radiation exposure, early menstruation
- many are events over which women have little or no control e.g. onset of menopause.
'Lifestyle' risk factors
Individual behavior and lifestyle certainly play important roles, but today's trend appears to be that individuals are considered not only responsible for but also guilty of causing their disease.Lifestyle factors constitute only part of the overall risk picture for breast cancer, approximately 5%. Government and media fixation on lifestyle factors as key both to breast cancer risk and prevention leaves the problem entirely with women themselves. It makes sense to follow a healthy lifestyle but that is no guarantee that you will not get cancer. A woman cannot protect herself absolutely from environmental factors beyond her control. And as those factors proliferate, her risk increases, no matter how many vegetables she eats, how many drinks she declines, or pounds she loses.
Tomatis & Huff 2001
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Reg. address: Breast Cancer UK Ltd, Solva, Southwick Road, Denmead, Waterlooville, Hants. PO7 6LA UK | last updated: 5/10/2006