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Guest column: Take off rose-coloured glasses for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Windsor Star by Jane McArthur 6 October 2019 


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I see the messages in the media, the pleas for donations, the pledge sheets coming home from my children’s school. As someone working in cancer research and advocacy for two decades, I too have a plea for this October: take off the rose-coloured glasses and realize we need to do more when it comes to breast cancer prevention. Awareness is not enough.

In my own and other researchers’ findings, we find a knowledge gap. While women — and men and children — are not unaware of breast cancer, and they readily associate the colour pink with the disease, many of us are uninformed about much of what is behind breast cancer. We have a knowledge translation problem. Continued messages from medical practitioners, cancer agencies, mainstream media, and researchers that focus only on individual behaviours, diet, exercise and genetic risk factors obscure the reality that up to 70 per cent of breast cancer occurs in women without the known risk factors. Individual habits interact with exposures outside of women’s (and men and children’s) control in workplaces and community environments through the life span. Yet, these environmental factors are not typically part of the October barrage of breast cancer messages, and furthermore, the focus on raising money for “awareness” seems to be doing little to stem the tide of breast cancer cases, in Canada and globally.

North American women face a lifetime risk for breast cancer of one in eight with almost 500 new diagnoses of breast cancer each week in Canada. Breast cancer in premenopausal women is rising. The overall global incidence of breast cancer continues to rise with marginal improvements in the last few decades in terms of five-year survival rates. Five to 10 percent of cases are related to genetic factors with family history, lifestyle and behavioural factors contributing to overall incidence as well. Numerous studies have demonstrated links between environmental exposures and breast cancer, with evidence that the timing of exposure as well as combinations of exposures is also critical.

Public health researchers remind us that health is part of a whole system of interactions at the level of the individual, community-level factors, and that policy and regulation by our governments are also part of the proliferation of some diseases. This October, as you notice the pink ribbon awareness campaign, or as you generously make your donations, even as you work to raise your awareness of the factors that contribute to breast cancer, you might also consider that here in Canada we are on the verge of a federal election. At election times, your candidates are open to what voters have to say. Your families, colleagues, friends and neighbours are talking about what matters to them as they make decisions about how and what issues to vote on. Make environmental causes of breast cancer part of your conversations this October. Bring that knowledge to the polls as we elect our next governments who will make decisions about whether or how you might be exposed to breast carcinogens in ways that only policymakers, regulators, and decision-makers have the ability to affect.

Let’s get this breast cancer awareness month right. Take off the rose-coloured glasses, become aware of and talk about how our environments are contributing to the majority of breast cancers, and let’s hold our governments accountable for their role in our future health and measures for prevention.

Jane McArthur is an Environmental and Workplace Health Research at the University of Windsor.