Breast Cancer Goose Chase Harms Everyone

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Question: How many studies does it take to establish that the cause of an illness is not pollution? Answer: There are never enough when the accusers are a combined force of feminists and environmentalists. Since the early 1990s, women in the Northeastern U.S., especially Long Island, New York, have been claiming that A) they are suffering an extraordinary rate of breast cancer, and that B) the cause most assuredly lies in the hand of man.

What the specific pollutant is, they have been at a loss to say — pesticides in general, chlorinated chemicals, power lines. The point is that some faceless, nameless corporation run by insensitive (no doubt cigar-chomping) white males has to be at fault.

Environmentalists have willingly accommodated them in this belief. Not long ago the left-wing magazine Mother Jones featured a cover with a woman wearing a gas mask as a brassiere.

Now there has appeared the latest in a series of studies showing that pollution isn’t the cause of these higher breast cancer rates. And you know what? No one seems to care.

This study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), shows that women in the Northeast are indeed more likely to die of breast cancer than in other regions of the country. It also found the risk was almost completely due to certain risk factors which these women have incurred, including having children later in life and greater rates of alcohol use and obesity.

Other lifestyle factors not looked at could probably explain the rest.

"This [study] suggests there is nothing uniquely hazardous about living in the Northeast," said Joseph K. McLaughlin of the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

But the activists don’t want to hear this. Cindy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Women’s Health Network, told the Boston Globe the study "doesn’t set my mind at ease, and it doesn’t make me think there aren’t environmental factors at work."

The federal government’s chase after pollutants as a cause of breast cancer can be traced back to May 1992, when Long Island women began demanding that federal health officials find a bad guy to blame for what they perceived as an extraordinary breast cancer rate in their area. "Women want to know: Why me? Why now? Why on Long Island?" said one activist.

More telling were the words of Francine Kritchek, co-chair of One in Nine. "Women are tired of being told that it is because of their educational background, their high socio-economic status, their ethnic background and their age that they are prone to this illness," she said. In other words, bring me somebody’s — anybody’s — head on a platter.

Sen. Al D’Amato raising white flag of surrender to hysteria.

At the time, four state studies had failed to find connection between breast cancer in the state and environmental influences such as pesticides. Nevertheless, with the help of the state’s Republican U.S. Senator, Al D’Amato, the lobbying has paid off in the form of several lavish studies.

The JNCI study was one of them. And despite its negative findings, the NCI is moving forward with a much larger one investigating the possible connection between environmental factors and breast cancer, the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project. The cost? An incredible $7 million.

Yet in 1993 still another study found that the Long Island breast cancer rate wasn’t extraordinary. Using a computer database, the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday discovered, "The highest breast cancer incidence rates were in the San Francisco Bay area, suburban Boston, and suburban Chicago, not on Long Island. Nassau and Suffolk (the counties making up Long Island) ranked right in the middle of the group studied."

Did this mollify the Long Island activists? Far from it. "The fact that Long Island isn’t alone isn’t a comforting thought at all — it’s an even more disturbing message," one told Newsday.

Get it? The original problem was that Long Island’s breast cancer rate was so extraordinarily high. When it turned out it wasn’t extraordinarily high it was proof of an even greater problem. Do the words "no-win situation" come to mind?

All of this might be a bit humorous, were in not for a couple of considerations. First, this fanatical quest for corporate villains to blame is coming at a real human cost. What incentive does a woman have to reduce her lifestyle risks if she’s convinced that nothing she’s doing is contributing to her chances of breast cancer?

Second, these studies are extremely expensive and are a terrific waste of time for our nation’s top researchers. In general, breast cancer spending — like that of AIDS — is completely disproportionate to its incidence.

Compare breast cancer with prostate cancer. Breast cancer probably struck about 183,000 American women in 1995, killing 46,000. Prostate cancer probably afflicted about 244,000 men, killing 35,000. Breast cancer survivors may lose one or both breasts, a cruel maiming but one fixable through plastic surgery. More and more often the disease is being treated by removal of the tumor only.

Prostate surgery survivors, conversely, often face permanent impotence and incontinence. But while breast cancer will receive $500 million from the feds, prostate cancer will get less than $80 million. There are no studies looking for environmental causes of prostate cancer.

There are only so many medical researchers and funds to go around. It’s time we start using our resources based on where they can do the most good. Endless efforts to satisfy paranoid activists don’t meet that standard.