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What causes breast cancer?

September 7, 2009

If you notice, the media spends much of its time publishing information that blames the victim. I think this is so that those who don’t have breast cancer can feel that they’ll never get it and, furthermore, that those of us who have it did something wrong such as one or all of the following. Sorry to tell you that sometimes it’s just the “luck of the draw” as my oncologist put it… before I snarled at him for using the word “luck” in this context.

Note: I owe some of this information to the ladies at Team Inspire.

The victim causes her own breast cancer by….  
Having body odor and ear wax. I’m not making this up. Here’s the tag for the article, “Researchers See Clues for Breast Cancer Risk in Underarm Body Odor and Wet Ear Wax.” You can read the whole thing at Web MD.

Not drinking wine. One year Wine Spectator blames us teetotalers for our breast cancer because we don’t drink wine: “Two Studies Look to Red Wine for Breast Cancer Prevention.” I think all the wine manufacturers that have pink ribbons are going with this study.

Drinking wine. The next year, another article tells us that, “Drinking moderate amounts of any kind of alcohol (including wine, beer, and liquor) is associated with a slightly increased breast cancer risk.” In the intervening year those silly enough to have not seen what would happen in the future presumably had a few too many and caused their own breast cancer.

Having mammograms. One article says “…one estimate is that annual radiological breast exams increase the risk of breast cancer by two percent a year. So over 10 years the risk will have increased 20 percent.” Read it for yourself at, “Mammograms cause breast cancer….” Further, those of us with dense breast tissue can get a little complacent about a clear mammogram, and mammograms don’t pick up fast-growing cancers, which can start as little as a week after a clear mammogram and grow for a year until the next mammogram is scheduled. So, for many women, mammograms are worse than a poor tool for detection of cancer. I fall in that category. I have dense breast tissue and had fast-growing cancer the first time around. But I’d had a mammogram four months before the cancer showed up as a pain (note: not a lump), so I let it grow for another four months before I did anything. I thought, and my doctor agreed, that it just couldn’t be cancer because I’d just had a mammogram and there was no lump, right? This was one of the top doctors in Seattle. I don’t see her any more.

Not having mammograms. You’ve all heard the drumbeat about early detection, especially from the Komen folks. Certainly early detection helps some, and we’re grateful for those saved lives.

Being fat and sluggish (relaxing too much). You’ve all heard this and probably seen all the studies. I guess those of us who have maintained a healthy lifestyle – including several women I know who died of breast cancer – shouldn’t have bothered to spend all that time trying to be healthy. Eat drink and be merry!

Not relaxing enough. Apparently, though, being high strung and unable to slouch about and relax has its own problems as shown by “Severe Psychological Stress May Be Linked To Breast Cancer.”

But nobody else wants to take the blame….

Heaven forbid that any large manufacturer or government entity should attempt to make positive changes or take blame for any of the following.

Lights at night, especially florescent lights. The EU recently did away with incandescent lighting, so now all you can buy there are compact floursecent bulbs. The US is heading in that direction. But of course nobody considers the health effects in the face of public pressure to be “environmentally friendly.” Read the full article at, “Lights at Night are Linked to Breast Cancer.”

Hazardous waste and other toxins. Apparently all those chemicals are good for us, or at least they don’t cause cancer, otherwise someone would do something about this kind of thing, right? Right? See: “Environmental Exposures and Breast Cancer on Long Island,” and “Debating Just How Much Weed Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass.”

Plastics. Plastic water bottles, plastic food containers…. try to live a day without it. “Scientists link plastic food containers with breast cancer.” has more information.

Birth control pills and other hormones. It’s interesting to note that breast cancers have increased since the 1960s, maybe because that’s when birth control pills came into popular use? According to the National Cancer Institute, “current or recent users of birth control pills had a slightly elevated risk of developing breast cancer.” And, of course, those hormones that are pushed on menopausal women turned out to be a problem. Who knew that ingesting pills made from the urine of pregnant mares could possibly cause cancer? Stunning.

Cosmetics. Is it worth it to look good? Maybe not: Cosmetic Companies and Breast Cancer.


Some of the information on both sides is less than scientific, but all of it is worth considering when you hear someone blaming your local breast cancer victim for the disease that’s attacking her. It’s not like we can change whatever it was that caused this, and the truth is that for many of us, nobody knows what caused our cancer. Blaming us is both wrong and depressing. If we could have avoided this, we would have.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. samnangp permalink
    September 7, 2009 6:43 pm

    Seems as though the researchers ought to be more truthful with a blanket statement such as: “living gives you cancer”. 😉

    Seriously though, are they trying to blame the person for getting cancer, or is it simply their way of trying to figure out what causes cancer? I know someone who never smoked or drank, always had a healthy diet all her life, with prime health. In 25 years I recall her only having a cold once. Now in her early 70’s she is going through chemo to treat her cancer. Doesn’t make sense… Wonder what the researchers would say about her?

  2. Jill permalink
    September 7, 2009 7:12 pm

    I think the researchers are doing exactly what you say — trying to figure out what causes cancer. Unfortunately, the media makes every minor finding or investigation into a major finding, and the general public is unable to sort out the conflicting information.

    The general confusion leads to many rude questions to cancer patients like “Have you been overweight?” “Do you smoke?” “Do you drink too much?” “Why didn’t you get mammograms?” “Did you ever live near a nuclear waste dump?” “Is your mother dead and did she die of breast cancer?” all in the attempt to see if there was a root cause and, I think, to comfort the questioner that what she is doing to protect herself from breast cancer will indeed protect her.

    About your friend, I wish I knew what caused her cancer! Very few cases of breast cancer — I believe only 10% — can be linked solidly to genetics, which one would think would be the largest number. Thirty percent or more fall into the “unkown cause” category. I wish your friend well and hope that her treatment is easy and effective.

  3. mom permalink
    September 7, 2009 10:35 pm

    How do they explain mens breast cancers? It can and does happen!! And are parents responsible, not the “victim?”

    • Jill permalink
      September 8, 2009 7:07 am

      Yes, and it’s very deadly when men get it because it’s so unexpected it gets misdiagnosed for far too long.

      Parents aren’t to blame any more than the person who has cancer. You know that, Mom. 🙂

  4. Cristina permalink
    September 8, 2009 9:57 am

    I think I see a little gap in the researcher’s logic…a bit of red wine reduces the risk a bit, but the next study that shows the increase in risk combines wine, beer, and liquor. Since beer and liquor were not in the first study…maybe it’s the beer and liquor that cancel red wine’s benefits and increase the risk…
    And of course, individuals have different vulnerabilities. Doing one thing increases risk for some conditions and yet decreases risk for yet another condition. All things considered, including family history, I’m sticking with the red wine (and skipping the beer).

    • Jill permalink
      September 8, 2009 11:48 am

      lol, Cristina.

      You’re exactly right about most studies being generalizations. Different things affect different people differently. How different is that?

  5. Lisa permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:35 am

    The best answer I’ve yet to hear on what causes cancer is, that we are simply living longer. It use to be that other natural causes would kill someone before a cancer could ever come that person’s way. Not very reassuring, but at least it doesn’t ‘blame’ the person with the illness.

    It is the human mind that wants to find some fault somewhere, but people forget how much hurt that can cause the person with the disease/disorder. By finding the fault, then people don’t worry about it happening to them and find it more easily conceptualized. Unfortunately, the medical field doesn’t have the answer yet for many things and cancer is definitely high on that list. Blaming a person with the health issue, only creates pain and a fear of being honest about what is occurring.

    • Jill permalink
      September 8, 2009 11:49 am

      That’s a great point. If it hadn’t been for modern medicine I’d likely have died of one infection or another years ago.

      Then again, I think that if it hadn’t been for other modern amenities, I likely wouldn’t have cancer.

      I guess it’s like the first commenter said — life gives you cancer (or something else eventually!)

  6. Bemuse Boomer permalink
    September 10, 2009 12:08 am

    I suppose it’s a tiny step in the right direction. Any “women’s problems” that men couldn’t explain used to be chalked up to “hysteria.” (OK, a VERY tiny step.)

    I’ve had Crohn’s Disease for over 20 years. In that length of time, I’ve heard it attributed to: toothpaste (!), diet, stress, weird parasitic microbes that no one can see, negative attitude, and unhealthy life style. Yeah, well, now that they’ve described at least half of all Americans, why am I the chosen one? And how do I get rid of it?

    I think you’re right; people who ask all these rude questions are trying to reassure themselves, not help you. Geoffry Rush’s character in the movie “Shine” said, “It’s a mystery.”–which applies to a lot of things in our lives. So, we keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually we get somewhere!

    • September 10, 2009 9:11 am

      My grandmother was labeled a hypochondriac. They tell me I have fibromyalgia. I think that’s just a new name for hypochondria. I have all kinds of symptoms (including symptoms of Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis), but no ailment. Since I got my diagnosis on October 1, 2001, any time I have a symptom, they just chalk it up to fibromyalgia. I will say, though, that my doctor does continue to look just in case my newest symptom might be something real (she’s a real advocate for my health), but in general, the medical community just sort of throws up their collective hands and shrugs, and doesn’t make any progress towards finding out why so many of us hurt everywhere and feel sick all the time, but don’t have anything “real”.
      A while back, I decided to find some humor in my situation. Instead of fibromyalgia, I now have a super power: EMPATHY — “the action of … being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings … of another ….” So, you have Crohn’s, and I feel like I have Crohn’s. I know, I’m being weird, but sometimes being silly helps me cope.

  7. Cristina permalink
    September 13, 2009 3:50 pm

    I sure hope watching Dr. Who doesn’t increase the risk for any cancers or chronic diseases… There’s a marathon on today, and I’m taping this season’s episodes 🙂

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