Healing Infertility Series: Step Three, What Breast Cancer can teach us About Infertility (Three Part Series)

As we tackle step three in healing infertility, I write about something I am very passionate about; something that truly angers me because we as women are ill-informed about these potentially life-threatening dangers.

Today I would like to talk about why the research on breast cancer is important for us to understand as women–not just for our breast health, but also for our fertility health.

Our breasts are sensitive to hormones, and are the one tissue in our body that is still developing all the way up until we give birth. The environmental linkages to breast cancer can be the same environmental linkages to infertility–wreaking havoc on the hormones that lead to healthy conception.

Over the next three days I will provide excerpts from the publication of Dr. Marisa Weiss, M.D. found at: breastcancer.org. Please, please visit the site, read the entire guide, and share it with every woman you know. Understanding how these factors affect your hormones (affecting your breast health), leads to understanding how these factors are affecting your fertility.

The environment we as women face today is damaging our bodies, in perhaps more drastic and extreme ways than we even yet know.

The warning sign our body is using to speak to us (infertility) is a wake-up call to make life changes that will lead us to conception, and also perhaps more importantly to a long and healthy life.

Making these changes myself is a part of what led to my FSH reduction of over 40 points.

* Note: the fully referenced guide (including all of the studies) can also be obtained at breastcancer.org. I have not included the references here to avoid over complicating the message.

Part One of Three:

Breastcancer.org President and Founder Marisa Weiss, M.D. – Think Pink, Live Green

Think Pink, Live Green represents the results of ongoing research to identify both well-established and newly suspected breast cancer risk factors. Many of these factors can be reduced or modified by changing our daily lives. Every woman is at risk for breast cancer; some are more prone than others. But sometimes risk can be random

Understanding the Breast:
Even when breasts appear fully formed on the outside, the cells on the inside don’t mature completely until women go through a full-term pregnancy. Immature breast cells are more active and responsive to hormones than are mature cells. Estrogen is a hormone that can “turn on” breast cell growth. Long-term exposure to extra estrogen or chemicals that act like estrogen can increase breast cancer risk [and fertility struggles].

Breast cancer incidence has increased because modern life has changed the environments both outside and inside our bodies.

Genetic risk factors
Some women inherit a mutation in genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2, producing a high risk of breast cancer. These mutations are responsible for less than 10% of all breast cancer cases.

More women and girls are overweight or obese
Overeating increases body fat and promotes food cravings, leading to more eating. Fat cells make estrogen, and the extra fat makes extra estrogen. Fat can also collect and store many environmental pollutants that can act like estrogen. Diabetes is more common in obese individuals. This condition involves high levels of blood sugar and insulin-type hormones. Taking big “doses” of high-calorie foods on a daily basis can trigger some of the same changes. All of this extra hormonal activity can turn on too much breast cell growth, possibly increasing the risk of breast cancer.

More women and girls are physically inactive
Exercise also helps regulate hormone and blood sugar levels that can trigger extra cell activity.

More women consume alcohol
Alcohol can both interfere with the breakdown of estrogen and increase the production of estrogen. It can also make the estrogen receptors inside breast cells more sensitive to estrogen. Longer and greater alcohol use in women produces more harmful effects, leading to a higher risk of breast cancer.

Many women are stressed and sleep deprived
Ongoing stress and sleep deprivation raise serious concerns about our overall health and breast cancer risk. Extra stress leads to high blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol can have a negative effect on our immune system’s ability to function properly and protect our cells from injury. We need quality sleep to function well, keep our immune system strong, and repair and heal the wear and tear of everyday living. So far, stress and sleep deprivation have no proven link to breast cancer risk. But only limited studies have been done. Some studies show a possible connection between extra light at night and a higher risk of breast cancer. This may be due to lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. Melatonin production is activated by darkness and helps promote normal cell growth.

Women and girls are exposed to more environmental pollutants
The widespread use of synthetic (man-made) chemicals in modern life has dramatically changed the chemical makeup of the environments inside and outside of our bodies. But the impact of these chemicals on breast health has only been partly studied and early evidence raises serious concerns. Some pollutants can directly damage our genes. Others can mimic estrogen or disrupt the normal hormonal balance and lead to abnormal breast cell growth.

The 2008-2009 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel on Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk states, “A growing body of research documents a myriad of established and suspected environmental factors linked to genetic, immune and endocrine dysfunction that can lead to cancer and other diseases.”

Pollutants are everywhere
Since the 1940s, we have been exposed to a rapidly increasing number of synthetic chemicals. More than 80,000 different chemicals are now used in manufacturing, agriculture, and consumer products to combat pests and infection, add convenience, save money, and increase productivity. But many of these chemicals can have harmful effects on both our inside and outside environments. We are exposed to environmental pollutants in many different ways. These chemicals can leak into the land, water, and air of our outside environment. They can also get into the environment inside our bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and in the cleaning and personal care products we use.

In the foods we eat and the water we drink…
Food is usually our main exposure to chemicals from the outside environment. Water and other drinks represent a real but lesser source of exposure.

Many chemicals used in agriculture and food processing can get into our food. In addition, many of these chemicals can also wash off farmlands, landscaped areas, and backyards, and enter our water supplies. Once inside our bodies, some of these chemicals can weakly mimic estrogen or other kinds of our own natural hormones. For example, of the 200 pesticides tested in 2004, 25% are able to produce weak estrogen effects.

Human and animal studies show that exposures to several widespread pollutants during early breast development can significantly increase the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. Thus, babies in the womb and girls in adolescence appear to be particularly vulnerable to effects of hormonally active pollutants.

In the air we breathe…
Smoking pollutes the air you breathe and is a risk factor for breast cancer. Second-hand smoke may have the same negative effect.

Flame-retardant furniture, carpeting, floor sealants, vinyl wallpaper, paints, and other building materials can release chemicals into the air within your home and workplace. Some of these chemicals have been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer. Popular consumer products, such as air fresheners and scented candles, also release chemicals into the air. Air pollution from automobiles, other forms of transportation, and manufacturing can negatively affect our health as well. While many of these chemicals have no proven link to breast cancer, there is real concern about their safety. They can tip the normal balance of hormones and produce other adverse health effects.

In the products we use…
Many personal care products, such as shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, and perfumes, contain chemicals whose safety has not been fully tested. And what goes on us can go in us. Ingredients such as fragrances, preservatives, and hormone extracts can be absorbed into the body. Some of these chemicals have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer in laboratory animals. We can also absorb chemicals from everyday products used in our homes, on our pets, on the lawn, and in the garden. Some of these chemicals may have an unhealthy effect on our cells, possibly contributing to the risk of cancer.

Most plastics release some amount of chemicals into the food and drinks they contain, especially when containers are heated or re-used many times. Chemicals released by plastics #3, 6, and 7 can be especially harmful. A hormonally active chemical found in #7 plastics (bisphenol A, also called BPA) is also used to seal the ink on cash receipts and is found in the lining of food cans. And while testing the safety of plastics is hard to do in people, laboratory and animal studies raise serious concerns about the possible effect of plastics on breast cancer risk. Research results show that chemicals from these plastics can act like weak estrogens or disrupt the body’s normal balance of hormones. In the 2008-2009 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel, they expressed the same concerns: “The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are unstudied or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

“Many pollutants in the environment have biological effects, so even in the absence of specific information linking these chemicals to diseases it is not safe to assume that they are benign. This applies particularly to long exposures (for decades), even at low concentrations, particularly when those exposures are early in life when organs are growing rapidly. Avoidance whenever possible would seem to be a prudent policy.”

Larry Norton, M.D., Deputy Physician-in-Chief for Breast Cancer Programs, Medical Director, Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Cancer, Norma S. Sarofim Chair of Clinical Oncology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

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3 comments

  1. […] Today I would like to talk about how the research on breast cancer is important for us to understand as women–not just for our breast health, but also for our fertility health. Our breasts are sensitive to hormones, … Link: Healing Infertility Series: Step Three, What Breast Cancer can … […]

  2. […] Healing Infertility Series: Step Three, What Breast Cancer can teach us About Infertility (Three Par… […]

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