Cancer and the Environment

By Tami Boehmer

I remember talking with fellow members of Pink Ribbon Girls, a group for young breast cancer survivors; about how there must be a link between cancer and the environment. Most of us had no family history (reflective of most the breast cancer population) and there were so many of us under 40! In fact, several members were diagnosed in their mid-twenties!

So I was excited to have the opportunity to enroll my daughter Chrissy in the Growing Up Female study conducted by the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Centers. University of Cincinnati is one of four centers nationwide conducting the study, which began in 2003 and just received another grant to continue.  The study looked at 1,239 girls from Cincinnati, East Harlem, NY and the San Francisco area.

Since she was eight, Chrissy (now 12) has gone twice a year to get poked, measured and get blood drawn (well, when she was willing). I completed long questionnaires about her exercise, diet, emotional well-being … you name it. It was all worth it because I know they are on to something that may help her and other young women in the future.

The findings from the first phase of the study were published in the Aug. 9, 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. What did they find? The number of seven- and eight-year-old girls with breast development has increased as compared to studies 10-20 years ago. Previous studies have linked early menstruation to an increased risk of breast cancer.

The team here in Cincinnati just received money to continue the study to look at potential factors for early maturation, including genes and environmental exposures. I have long heard that Cincinnati has a high cancer incidence rate because of its number of industries. So, I am very interested in what they discover and just signed up to continue our participation.

The American Cancer Society addresses environmental carcinogens on their website.  I think they are just hitting the tip of the iceberg. It seems everywhere I look carcinogens are present. I just bought a memory foam pillow and when I laid my head on it, it had a very strong chemical smell. I looked on tag to determine its materials: polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a derivative of petrochemicals, which are used in many types of oils, varnishes, and plastics. It contains volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to cancer. That is why you’ll see paint that says “VOC-free.”  So imagine laying your head on this pillow night after night breathing that in? Needless to say, I returned it. We live in the world and are exposed to these things. What can we do to limit our exposure? Next week, I’ll offer a few suggestions.

Tami Boehmer is a metastatic breast cancer survivor, speaker, blogger and author of From Incurable to Incredible: Cancer Survivors Who Beat the Odds. You can visit her at

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