Most people who have heard me talk know that I am focused on finding the cause of breast cancer so that we can prevent it. Many people have suggested that the answer may well be the environment. The recent Institute of Medicine Report on Breast Cancer and the Environment noted the known risk factors such as hormone replacement therapy, obesity and alcohol. But what about all the chemicals that are ubiquitous in our lives? Could they be culprits? The IOM said it couldn’t answer this question because not enough research has been done.

This is undoubtedly part of the reason why a lot of media attention has been directed at a new study on parabens and breast cancer by researchers at the University of Reading in the UK.

Parabens are chemicals that are widely used as antimicrobial preservatives in numerous consumer products, including pharmaceuticals, foods and cosmetics. In 2004 the same research group reported finding parabens in breast tumor tissue. They were interested in parabens because there is some evidence that these compounds have some estrogenic properties, and could potentially influence the breast.

In their most recent study, published in the January 12 online issue of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, the group looked at breast tissue from 40 women who had a mastectomy between 2005 and 2009 because they had breast cancer to see if they could find parabens in the noncancerous breast tissue. And while I am happy to see more research being done in women as opposed to rats, this study actually brings more questions than answers.

The good news is that the researchers actually looked to see if there were parabens in the breast tissue, rather than just hypothesizing that it might be there. And indeed they found parabens in the 160 tissue samples (four from each woman) they studied, including samples taken from seven women who said they did not use any underarm deodorants or antiperspirants, the presumed source. They also found that there was no difference between the amount of parabens found in the breast tissue of the women who used antiperspirants or deodorants and those who did not, suggesting that there must be another source.

The bad news is that they did not look to see if women without breast cancer also have parabens in their breast tissue. The issue is not whether it is there but whether we all have it or only the women with breast cancer.

As I have often explained, to get breast cancer, you need to have mutated cells as well as a local tissue environment that is egging them on. It is certainly possible that parabens can contribute to this environment. However, this study only tells us that they are ubiquitous in the cancerous breast. That does not mean that they are the cause of cancer. It is like noticing that all drug addicts drink milk and concluding that drinking milk leads to drug addiction. Before we get too carried away we need to see what the rest of us have in our breasts!

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12 Responses to Parabens & Breast Cancer: A new study brings more questions than answers

  1. Dr Philippa Darbre says:

    As the lead author of the study and in answer to this question concerning the lack of breast tissue from healthy women, I would like to know where I find women who will give breast tissue for research at four serial locations across their breast and in reasonable quantity when they have not had any breast disease? Suggestions for research which CAN be done would be more helpful.

  2. Bev Sutton says:

    Dr. Darbre, perhaps you should have researched a little more into the Dr. Susan Love Foundation and the Army of Women before posting … this is EXACTLY where you will find healthy women willing to volunteer for just such a study.

  3. Madeleine says:

    breast reduction surgeries, accidental deaths (organ donors) could provide additional tissue for research

  4. Julia says:

    How about a list of products with Parabens and substitutes so survivors and healthy woman can avoid exposure and advocate for removal?

  5. Patricia Franks says:

    Another source for breast tissue is female cadavers (other than accidental deaths).

    Would it be too difficult to find elderly women who would be willing to donate their breast tissue or the children of newly deceased women?

    Patricia

  6. Mary Henderson says:

    Dr Darbre ,
    Rather than whining that you would not be able to find healthy women to participate in a study and rejecting out of hand Dr. Loves comments, I suggest you take a page from her play book and start thinking out side the box. She and the women in the Army of Women do just that and they accomplish quite amazing things!
    Give them a try!!!

  7. ann vincent says:

    Dr. Darbre: I commend you for focusing on the adjacent breast tissue in determining associated exposures to toxins, related to the development of breast cancer. Obviously there are also many other potential culprits which may be acting in concert, especially cumulatively, to promote a tumor-conducive environment. I hope that other researchers will also take the approach of attempting to document the specific chemical entities that are likely associated with the creation of a locally estrogenic environment in the effected breasts. Like the others who have written, I also wonder about researchers being able to acquire breast tissue samples from those who undergo elective breast procedures (reconstruction and reductions, etc.), perhaps with the cooperation of plastic surgeons? Best of luck to you in your work, AV

  8. AnneMarie says:

    As a “survivor” with a significant cluster of family disease and now, sadly, many other female “at risk” family members, I believe I could get at least one of my (so far) healthy family members to consent to submitting breast tissue to advance research. I am sure I am not the only “survivor” who feels they might be in a position to recruit healthy women. What about the BRCA positive women who choose prophylactic mastectomy? There are many ways up the mountain. I believe there are resources. We just need to figure out how to tap into them. Some excellent suggestions have been made.

  9. shale says:

    I have never seen this blog before and I thank you for it. I have always wondered and probably someone has already done this type of study, but has anyone thought of studying the prevalence of breast cancer and the incidence of breast cancer over the last 30 years in developing countries and comparing them? My impression is that the incidence has been growing and it would be instructive to know how the rates got higher as women in those countries started to use more cosmetics, creams, soaps, antiperspirants that are manufactured by western companies. I live in such a country and as the local traditional environment changes so the cancer rates increase. Why are we so allergic to the natural smell of human beings?

  10. Jonathan says:

    Dr. Love’s stance is a very responsible one. Just because a certain substance is present in breast tissue does not automatically mean is a cause of many or any breast cancers. It definitely needs to be studied, but for now, the answer is not there to justify making a switch to something else. And even if a risk is firmly established in the future, we would then have to make sure that any “healthy alternatives” did in fact have an established safety profile themselves.

  11. Kris says:

    Perhaps an interesting source of tissue could be from women choosing a prohylactic mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis in the other breast?

  12. Betsy says:

    It seems irresponsible to do half a study, how can we conclude that parabens are bad without knowing if they are present in healthy breasts!?!? And even those findings don’t for certain indicate one way or the other, it helps a lot. I say that because of various other factors and so much else that is in breast tissue. There are different types of parabens, maybe only some are bad? Maybe they are only bad when mixed with something else, it’s so complicated. Meanwhile I am freaking out throwing out expensive cosmetics over this paraben controversy. How many years have we known about parabens potential link? Many. And why no studies on healthy breasts!?!? People die every freaking day, people who are organ donors. Why is it so hard?!?!? We want to know more about this than see pics of Annistons permanent bikini wedgies, yet this crap is what sells magazines. Disgusting priorities.

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