The Ecology of Breast Cancer: Researching the risks for breast cancer

Going beyond known risk factors for breast cancer has led to research that looks at the ecology of risk. Dr Ted Schettler is the science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. He is also the author of The Ecology of Breast Cancer: The promise of prevention and the hope for healing. Dr Schettler says considering all the conditions that cancer arises from, means not just individual risks such as genetics, but community, ecosystem and societal concerns.

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SCHETTLER: What happens in utero, in infancy and in childhood influences breast cancer risk decades later. So I thought that those observations which are clearly derived from an analysis of what’s published in scientific journals, lent itself to an ecological analysis. That’s why I called it The Ecology of Breast Cancer.

TOWNSEND: Risk factors even in utero? Talk about what some of those are.

SCHETTLER: Women who took Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, while they were pregnant back in the 1950’s and 60’s actually created an increased risk for a variety of adverse health outcomes in their daughters, years later. And what we’ve learned in recent years is that women who were exposed to DES in utero are at about a twofold increase risk of breast cancer after the age of 40. Another entirely different set of studies has been published by Barbara Conan and her colleagues in the Bay Area of California. They had access to blood specimens that had been collected and then stored and frozen over a number of years in which they could measure DDT levels. She was able to show that higher levels of exposure to DDT in the womb resulted in a fivefold increase risk of breast cancer in women in adulthood after the age of 40 or 50.

TOWNSEND: What should women, young women and older, that are in control of their own health and taking care of themselves… what should they be focused on doing and not doing to help protect themselves from breast cancer?

SCHETTLER: In general, what we’ve learned is a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, in particular darker deeply colored vegetables, are very nutritious and have a lot of cancer protective properties. We can talk about whole soy as being protective, interestingly enough. And I emphasize whole soy because I’m not talking about soy supplements – they can actually have a different effect, adverse effect, whereas whole soy is protective. Using nuts is beneficial. Healthy fats rather than unhealthy fats. And then I would finally mention the importance of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is really not a vitamin; it’s a hormone. The precursors are in the skin, and sunlight hits the skin and converts the precursors, after a couple of passes through the kidneys, into an active hormone which interacts with hormone receptors, Vitamin D receptors, in many tissues of the body including the breast. And with regard to breast cancer, it helps the cells maintain the right level of cellular differentiation and proliferation so we don’t get too many of them too fast. It helps maintain normal hormone levels. Many epidemiologics studies, not all but many of them, show that low levels of Vitamin D increase the risk of breast cancer. And interestingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics right now recommends that all babies, whether they’re formula fed or breast fed, should be vitamin D supplemented. All babies.

Dr Ted Schettler is the author of The Ecology of Breast Cancer. He is speaking in Anchorage tonight, Fairbanks tomorrow and in Nome on Thursday.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at or call 907-350-2058.

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