The Deadly Silence Over Breast Cancer and Obesity

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Every October we observe National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But what were we supposed to be made aware of? Maybe women should be made aware of what’s probably the single greatest controllable risk factor of breast cancer and yet one that to a great extent for political reasons is virtually ignored?

No, it’s not power lines, DDT or toxic waste dumps. It’s called obesity.

Myriad studies have found that obesity is a breast cancer double whammy. It both tremendously increases a woman’s risk of getting the disease and increases the chance the cancer will be fatal because the fat obscures and delays detection of the tumor.

A recently published finding from the Nurses’ Health Study in Boston found that post-menopausal women just 44 pounds overweight double their risk of breast cancer. Further, "There seems to be even a stronger association with greater degrees of obesity," according to Harvard University endocrinologist JoAnn Manson, M.D., one of the heads of the study.

Other studies have found similar results. The probable explanation, Manson told me, is that after menopause fat becomes the primary source of estrogen in a woman’s body swamping outside sources of estrogen (like DDT) that environmentalists have tried to link to the disease.

Meanwhile, a recent Yale study found that severely obese women are more than three times as likely to have their breast tumors detected at a later, less treatable stage of the disease.

Even independent of this, other studies show severe obesity apparently decreases survival rates, perhaps because severe obesity makes a woman much less likely to survive any major surgery.

The Yale study is also merely the latest of several to link severe obesity with late detection of breast tumors. Apparently the excess fat delays detection.

Since over a third of American women are obese, obesity inevitably causes several thousand breast cancer deaths yearly. Other women’s cancers such as endometrial, cervical, and ovarian also have a strong link to obesity.

So where are all the warnings about breast cancer and obesity? Seek and ye shall not find. Consider People magazine, which like most women’s magazines, has turned breast cancer into a cause celebre. It has mentioned the subject in 200 articles. Yet a cover story last year celebrated female obesity, with the title "Who Says Size Counts!" Not only does this article make no mention of the breast cancer-obesity link, neither do any of those 200 articles. None.

And People has been the rule, not the exception. You just don’t talk about the obesity-breast cancer link in polite or even impolite company. Activist groups like the National Breast Cancer Coalition exclaim, "they are tired of being told" to "watch their diets." The National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations even claims its a "myth" that there’s any "known way to prevent breast cancer."

Even state health departments, which often have strong activist connections, may provide only politically correct breast cancer information. Thus information distributed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Breast Cancer Initiative and the Breast Health Project informs readers, "We do not know what causes breast cancer or how to cure it." (Actually, over three-fourths of breast cancer is now cured).

Why these sounds of silence?

Every aspect of breast cancer, from funding to prevention to treatment, is now dominated by feminist activists. In feminist parlance, to say any woman has any control over contracting breast cancer or even to say that she is genetically predisposed — is "blaming the victim."

Ironically, this reluctance to "blame the victim" concerning obesity and breast cancer simply results in more victims.

Yet there is more to it. Just as feminists dominate the language of breast cancer, there is also a strong feminist streak in the language of obesity. The title of psychologist Suzie Orbach’s best-selling book says is it all: Fat Is a Feminist Issue.

"Fat," writes Orbach, is "not about lack of self-control or lack of will power," but rather "a response to the inequality of the sexes." Women think, "if I get bigger like a man then maybe I’ll get taken [as] seriously as a man."

Nay, it’s not too much food or too little exercise that cause obesity, she says. It’s men. Never mind that according to government data, 54 percent of American women are healthily thin, while only 40 percent of American men are. Whoops!

Just as "blaming the victim" terminology inhibits us from connecting breast cancer to obesity, we are also restrained from telling women they should lose weight for any> reason. Doing so provokes accusations of promoting eating disorders. Never mind that the most serious eating disorders are generally the result of underlying psychological problems, not women just trying to be thin.

The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance allies itself with this feminist angle, telling us that eating disorders kill 150,000 women a year. Actual number according to the National Institutes of Health: about 150. Finally, environmentalists have also hopped aboard the bandwagon of ignoring obesity, allying themselves with the breast cancer activists in trying to blame power lines, radar stations, fertilizers, pesticides, toxic waste dumps, even air pollution anything connected to industry. Says activist Samuel Epstein, M.D., "The cancer establishment remains myopically fixed on," yes, "blame the victim theories," while ignoring "evidence of environmental contaminants."

No, we don’t know what causes most breast cancers. But prudence, logic, and compassion dictate that where we do know what helps — such as losing weight women be told the truth.

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk