Melding scientific method with an urgent social agenda, Dr. Ted Schettler’s The Ecology of Breast Cancer explains the variables that give rise to the most common cancer in women worldwide, and the societal-level interventions needed to combat it as a threat to public health. Grounded in an exhaustive and comprehensive compilation of studies investigating the multi-factorial causes of breast cancer, Schettler examines, piece by piece, evidence culled from over a century of scientific research to successfully persuade his reader of the need for a complex eco-social response to a complex disease.
Starting with breast cancer’s first acknowledgment in recorded history (in Egypt circa 3000 – 2500 BCE), Schettler walks the reader through a deductive process that allows us to discover for ourselves the multi-layered systems that cause breast cancer and the startling intersection of cells, hormone, and tissue with economics, culture, society, and even politics.
He points out that many “painstakingly” composed epidemiologic studies lose sight of the complex eco-social contexts within which disease arise, and it is this “familiar reductionist approach” that overlooks how, for example, neighborhood safety affects chronic stress levels (which can then affect our gene expression), how federal farm crop subsidies affect food prices and availability, or even how repeated exposure to the ionizing radiation we use to screen cancer appears to actually increase the risk of developing the disease it seeks to prevent.
The implications of agricultural policy to our health are clear: “Over many years, federal subsidies and insurance programs for commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy beans, but not for fruits and vegetables, have handicapped produce growers and promoted crops used disproportionately in cheaper, processed, unhealthy junk food. The resulting food environment increases the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and dementia. This is a predictable result of the way we have designed today’s dominant food system.”
Schettler emphasizes the need to orient our understanding of breast cancer as an accumulation of exposures that can begin while still in utero—exposures that we, teachers, politicians, and healthcare professionals can actively prevent with the design of our society. With a latency period of 15 to 20 years and sometimes longer, it is now clear that nutrition in childhood and adolescence in particular—significantly more so than in adulthood—affects the breast’s vulnerability to exposure to chemical carcinogens later in life.
Some compelling conclusions: fermented soy products decrease the risk of developing breast cancer, while “Western” ways of life—diet, work patterns, exercise—increase it. This is most apparent in countries like Japan, China, and Greenland, where according to Schettler, “recent breast cancer rates have increased sharply compared to historic patterns.” Oral contraceptives increase risk as well (while decreasing risk of uterine and ovarian cancers), but the risk appears to disappear after four years post-use.
In an exclusive interview with Food Tank, Schettler summarized the conclusions of his thoughtful 200-page analysis: “[L]ifelong healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining healthy weight, healthy sleep patterns, maintenance of normal vitamin D levels, avoidance of exposure to chemicals known or suspected to increase cancer risk, avoiding smoking, limited alcohol consumption, avoidance of unnecessary exposure to radiation, and reductions in chronic stress are almost certain to help prevent breast cancer.”
However, he underscores that simply knowing certain factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer will not make a difference—it is acting on this knowledge and altering political, agricultural, and social structures to enable a safe environment across socio-economic contexts that will transform the number one cause of cancer deaths in women.