Q: Several older women I know either have had breast cancer or have it now. I’m only 18, but I’m wondering if there is anything I can do to protect my breasts now so I don’t develop breast cancer in the future?
A: Kudos to you for thinking about prevention early in life! There are many things you can do to protect the health of your breasts. Key strategies focus on avoiding hormone disruptive chemicals and potential carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer) in the food you eat and in the cleaning and personal care products you use.
What to Know About Breast Cancer Susceptibility
About one in every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, only 5–10 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are associated with a family history of the disease. Between 15 and 20 percent of breast cancers are linked to lifestyle factors, and more than 70 percent of breast cancers are largely unexplained.
Research has focused on endocrine disruptors—chemicals in our environment that interfere with hormone action, which in turn leads to adverse physiological effects. The picture that has emerged from the research is that exposure to environmental toxins during critical windows of susceptibility (puberty, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause) may increase the likelihood of developing a breast cancer.
One great resource is Protect Our Breasts, which features information on the Silent Spring Institute’s 216 mammary carcinogens and The Endocrine Disruptors Exchange’s list of 870 potential endocrine disruptors. The Protect Our Breasts website states:
“The newest science clearly shows women are most vulnerable during the years up and through the first full-term pregnancy. It is NOT women in their 50s. It is the young women who think nothing of a potential diagnosis that need most to avoid toxins in everyday products now and throughout their pregnancy—for their own health and for the next generation.”
Cynthia Barstow, founder and executive director of Protect Our Breasts and author of The Eco Foods Guide, says: “We were stunned (by this information) … Our directive was made crystal clear: translate the science into messages that young women can apply to themselves now—immediately—to protect their breasts and prevent a diagnosis later in life.” (If you’re an older woman or a man, following the tips below can still help protect health, but please also share this information with younger women in your life who may not be thinking about the issue.)
About one in every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
Avoid Hormone-Disrupting and Carcinogenic Chemicals
It may come as a shock to learn how prevalent unsafe chemicals are in our lives. From years of increasing industrial and agricultural chemical use, our planet has become overburdened by toxins in the air, soil, and grass—which translates to the food we consume and products we use. Though we cannot avoid some of these noxious substances, it’s important to take control and limit our exposure where we can. Here are five simple steps that everyone can take:
1. Choose USDA Organic food.
It’s an unappetizing but unavoidable fact: many of our go-to fruits and veggies are saturated with pesticide residue. According to What’s on My Food?, a searchable database presented by the Pesticide Action Network, seasonal favorites including cranberries, green beans, potatoes, winter squash, and celery may contain residues of between 13 and 64 potentially harmful pesticides. Some of these pesticides are known or probable carcinogens; some are suspected hormone disruptors; some are neurotoxins; and some are reproductive toxins.
You can avoid or dramatically limit your exposure to these pesticides by choosing USDA Certified Organic fruits and vegetables. Also look for organic turkey and other meats; organic flour, sweeteners, and dessert ingredients; and organic candy for Halloween.
Related: The Complete Guide to Breast Health
2. Store leftovers in glass containers, not plastic containers or plastic wrap.
Chemicals from those sealable plastic containers can leach into your food. Common offenders include #3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC); #6 polystyrene; and #7 other/polycarbonate (usually labeled by a small number surrounded by a triangle on the container). Plastic wrap is most often made out of #3 PVC plastic, which is created with the addition of plasticizers, such as phthalates, that are well-known endocrine disruptors. Avoid these options, and store food in glass containers instead.
3. Use safe cleaners when cleaning your home.
It may seem counterintuitive, but cleaning your house can actually be bad for your health—if you’re using potentially toxic conventional cleaning products. Many chemicals in common cleaning products can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Even household cleaning products claiming to be “Green” or “All-Natural” may still contain harmful carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
To make sure you’re maintaining a healthy home, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Non-harmful multi-purpose cleaners that get an A rating include Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap; Earth Friendly Products ECOS All–Purpose Cleaner; Planet All-Purpose Spray Cleaner; and Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner. You can also make your own healthy cleaning products by using everyday ingredients such as white vinegar and baking soda.
4. Use makeup and personal care products without harmful ingredients.
Thousands of chemicals, including hormone disruptors and carcinogens, lurk in personal care products such as lipstick, toothpaste, shampoo, and lotion. EWG developed its Skin Deep database of cosmetics and Healthy Living app to help people avoid these unsafe products.
Clean personal care products that either are EWG Verified (which meet EWG’s strict criteria for transparency and health) or have a high rating of 1 on their list include Mineral Fusion lipstick, lip gloss, and foundation;
Tom’s of Maine Antiplaque & Whitening Toothpaste, Peppermint; Tom’s of Maine Fresh Mint Toothpaste; Redmond Earthpaste; Avalon Organics Shampoo; and Everyone 3 in 1 Lotion, unscented as well as most scented varieties.
5. Avoid synthetic fragrances.
Beware of any product that lists the word “fragrance” in its ingredients. The ugly truth is that most fragrances are a cocktail of chemicals, and federal law doesn’t require companies to list any of the chemicals separately on product labels. Research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, and none of them was listed on the label. Phthalates, parabens, and artificial musks in particular are potential endocrine disruptors that have been linked to breast cancer.
Choose unscented personal care and cleaning products, or scented products with essential oils or citrus ingredients for a pleasant aroma. For a perfume alternative, use pure essential oils.
For more information about harmful chemicals in our food, cleaning, and personal care products, visit these websites:
What’s on My Food? (whatsonmyfood.org), a searchable database of common foods and the pesticide residues found on them, presented by the Pesticide Action Network.
Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning (ewg.org/guides/cleaners), a searchable database of cleaning products.
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics (ewg.org/skindeep) and Healthy Living app, a database that rates 70,000 personal care products for safety.