Skip to comments.Breast Cancer Mystery Frustrates Scientists: Electric Light Just Latest Of Many Suspects
Posted on 02/06/2005 12:58:41 PM PST by billorites
Richard Stevens wants to shed some light on the murky origins of breast cancer.
The University of Connecticut cancer epidemiologist says there still is no scientific consensus about why the incidence of the disease is so much higher in the developed world.
The literature on breast cancer is littered with discredited theories about environmental and lifestyle factors that may contribute to the onset of the disease.
"We knew more about the cause of breast cancer 20 years ago than we do today," Stevens said. "What we do know is that it must have something to do with industrialized society."
Only a few theories have withstood scientific scrutiny, and no single factor explains a great percentage of breast cancer cases.
But that hasn't stopped people from looking for new explanations.
Now, Stevens and a few other researchers are focusing on a little-known suspect - electric light.
Their theory that artificial light can cause breast cancer is simple. Prolonged periods of exposure to artificial light disrupt the body's circadian rhythms - the inner biological clocks honed over thousands of years of evolution to regulate behaviors such as sleep and wakefulness. The disruption affects levels of hormones such as melatonin and the workings of cellular machinery, which can trigger the onset of cancer, Stevens theorizes.
"Mankind has only been exposed to these light sources for 150 years or so," Stevens said.
So far, the theory is based largely on suggestive, but inconclusive, observational studies. For instance, night-shift workers such as nurses tend to be more prone to develop breast cancer than day-shift workers, and blind women are less likely to have breast cancer than women with sight.
In a recent study, Stevens and scientists at Yale University School of Medicine identified a possible genetic mechanism that could help explain how artificial light could trigger breast cancer. Pre-menopausal women with a variation of a "clock gene," which helps govern the regulation of the body's response to night and day, tend to have a higher risk of cancer.
"I'm not saying this is a cause, but that the evidence shows it is worth investigating," Stevens is quick to caution.
The fact that the origins of breast cancer still are being debated - and that new theories are emerging more than three decades after the United States declared a war on cancer - illustrates just how stealthy breast cancer is.
Scientists estimate that about nine out of 10 breast cancer cases are triggered by environmental and lifestyle factors rather than inherited risk. Smoking has long been identified as a cause of lung cancer, and a virus, human papillomavirus, causes cervical cancer.
But with breast cancer, researchers are not sure what lifestyle or environmental causes women should worry about.
Some widely circulated theories have little data to support them and have been largely rejected by the scientific community. Antiperspirants and wire bras fall into this category, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2003, the institute convened 100 breast cancer experts who concluded there is no evidence that miscarriages or abortions increase the risk of breast cancer.
Yet epidemiologists such as Stevens say other risk factors must exist and they urge that more studies be conducted.
"We absolutely need studies," said Deborah Winn, chief of the clinical and genetic epidemiology research branch of the National Cancer Institute. "If we have those answers, we might have the potential to improve prevention."
While the number of deaths from breast cancer has declined over the years, the incidence of the disease has increased slowly over the decades in the developed world, most studies show. And when a woman from a low-risk country moves to a high-risk country, her risk of breast cancer increases as well.
That's why suspicion centered on factors such as diet or pollutants such as pesticides.
Scientists believed for years that high levels of dietary fat accounted for differences in the rates of breast cancer in the developed and undeveloped worlds. But fat has largely been exonerated in breast cancer, Stevens said. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that even a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables did not protect women from the disease. And while pesticides can cause cells in laboratory dishes to turn cancerous, they have never been conclusively linked in large-scale studies to clusters of breast cancer cases.
There are plenty of oddities in the breast cancer epidemiology studies. Obesity is a risk factor for women - but only after menopause. Prior to menopause, obese women tend to get breast cancer less often than thinner peers.
Science, however, does say with great certainty that at least one factor plays a crucial role in the development of breast cancer: the female hormone estrogen, said Dr. Melinda Irwin, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine.
For instance, Irwin notes that girls who get their first periods early in life and women who enter menopause late in life - in both cases, increasing their exposure to estrogen - are clearly at greater risk of breast cancer than their peers. Women who give birth to children before the age of 30 have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who give birth after 30 and women who never become mothers at all. Women who take hormone replacement therapy are also at higher risk.
Irwin has also done research that suggests that exercise, which can lower estrogen levels, offers women some protection against the development of breast cancer.
But Stevens and others believe other elements of modern lifestyle and environment must play a role in increasing the risk of breast cancer.
In the mid-1980s, Stevens investigated connections between cancer and the use of electric power. The work helped set off a controversial debate over whether there was a link between electric power lines and the development of cancer. It got him thinking about the potential role of electric lighting.
For most of human history, people slept or rested during dark hours - and produced the hormone melatonin. Melatonin levels regulate circadian rhythms and may, some studies suggest, affect estrogen levels as well. Artificial light tends to disrupt those rhythms, with reduced levels of melatonin believed to lead to an increase in estrogen production.
The light theory of breast cancer has received a boost in recent years with the discovery of clock genes, a group of about eight genes that help regulate circadian rhythms. It turns out that clock genes play an important role in the activation of genes governing cell cycle regulation and apoptosis, or cell suicide. Malfunctions in these processes have been linked to the development of cancer.
But for now, the light theory is firmly on the fringe of scientific consensus.
Many scientists believe that the search for environmental and lifestyle triggers for breast cancer will not turn up one major villain, but many different culprits that account for small percentages of breast cancer cases.
"I think we will be hard-pressed to find a single etiology to breast cancer. A woman's body is so complex and exposed to so many different things," said Dr. Kristen A. Zarfos, assistant professor of surgery and medical director of the University of Connecticut Health Center Women's Specialty Health Program.
"It might be a combination of small effects of a lot of things we know about," Stevens conceded. "But if not, then what is it? It is frustrating that major drivers have just not emerged for breast cancer as they have for other major cancers."
How about stress? We certainly have plenty of it, and perhaps breast cancer is particularly sensitive to it.
Not many people died of cancer a two hundred years ago--plague, pneumonia, infections, etc., got them first---
They won't touch that connection with a thousand foot pole.
I can see it coming.
News to me. I've never even heard of Electric Light Abortions. If you get my drift...
Thus i'd agree. Continuous stress must be a major factor. It has been shown that constant stress can mess up the body faster than chain smoking ever could.
I'd have to say diet is another issue. But continuous high stress has to be numero uno.
--and what they neglect to mention is the average life expectancy of twenty five or so---
This is nothing but a long winded plea for government research money. Their last grant must have run out.
Hmmmm..., for some reason I can't use html to link to the above URL. Odd....
The truth is just a little too hard to handle....
The breast cancer rates differ greatly even taking life expectancy into account.
Electric Light Orchestra? Check.
Electric Light & Power, Inc.? Check.
Electric Light Abortions? Nope.
THis is interesting. My mom in law had breast cancer, and she worked the night shift for years as a nurse.
Professor Summers? That you?
...now I have the perfect excuse for my husband on the lights out policy.....roflmao.
Interesting that you should mention this. One of the states that received it was Utah, and I was one of the recipients. Had my cancer/mastectomy in 1994...
i read a study that said that breast feeding could possibly reduce the occurences of breast cancer, and this could be why it occurs less frequently in less developed countries, because they are generally having more children, and they breast feed them instead of using formula.
Are you disputing that?
"it must have something to do with industrialized society"
Or .. It's all America's fault! (as usual)
I still say it's connected to abortion or miscarriage in some way. One of the first reactions the body has to pregnancy occurs in the breast tissue - where the milk glands begin to prepare to feed the baby.
Over 500 years ago, what passed for scientists back then, used to call breast cancer the nuns disease, because only nuns got it. There is a definite link between breast cancer and not nursing children. Abortion comes into play because you can't nurse an aborted child.
How 'bout the facts that people live longer and we have better detection methods? This guy has been on a jihad against electricity for 20+ years. Every time he needs more funding, he comes out with a dubious link between electrical/magnetic fields and cancer. This brings out the enviro-weenies, hungry trial lawyers and utility haters in droves to give him cash.
Actually, it's just the opposite: one of the problems for health-care workers in undeveloped countries is to persuade women to breast-feed their children. They tend to want to give formula as being somehow more modern or healthier, when in fact formula is nowhere near as good for babies, doesn't provide the immune protection of breast milk, and often has to be prepared with water that's less than clean and/or put into bottles that aren't sterile. So to reduce the incidence of fatal infant diarrhea, health workers try to talk poor women into saving their resources to feed themselves better and giving breast milk to their babies.
No not disputing, mocking.
Breast feeding makes a huge difference. For every year of nursing, it cuts your risk by 50%! It makes sense, as the breasts were doing what they were designed to do. As an interesting side note- nuns are known to have a higher rate of all female cancers, once presumes b/c they are not having babies.
Do you really think we have more stress today? Our stresses are very minor: are we going to get that promotion, be able to finance that new house, get the kids into college, etc. The stresses of the past, or in undeveloped countries today, were far more serious: is that evil warlord going to put my son's eyes out, burn my village, rape me, and torture my husband to death; are the Arabs going to sell me into slavery; is the crop going to fail so that we all starve to death; is a monsoon going to drown me and a half-million of my countrymen; are the wolves going to eat my kids. Different order of magnitude altogether!
Never heard of FIDs before. Is it like FSDOTM (Fatal Senatorial Diarrehea Of The Mouth) like ted the swimmer" kennedy and boxer have?
I refuse to buy any Nestle product for that exact reason. They push formula in these countries. It's really terrible.
That was a pretty good band back in the late 70's early 80's....ELO......oh, A....abortions...never mind.
Most people are under constant stress. And it is the perpetuality of it, not necessarily the magnitude, that is dangerous. It has actually been shown that constant stress is an almost certain harbinger of disease.
It would take me a while to find the source, butin the article, it was reported that they were able to determine that Monkey Virus-contaminated supplies were given in Utah and 10 other states in 1955. The article had to do with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I will search and see if I can find it for you.
That's why a firm belief in Him, and His promise of an afterlife with Him, which I hold, relieves 99% of that stress. When all you do is struggle on this earth, with no hope of anything after, bare existence here offers little more than stress and despair.
Diarrhea is one of the most common causes of child and infant mortality in the underdeveloped world. The kids can't retain any fluid, get dehydrated, and die. The sad thing is, they can be saved very easily, with some of the cheapest medications that exist; saving a baby's life can cost only a few pennies. The difficulty lies in delivering these drugs to extremely remote areas not served by hospitals, clinics, or health-care workers.
Man this is the first I've heard of this one. Interesting info. Thanks
Maybe and it's only anecdotal but my wife, who died last march from breast cancer, nursed all three of our daughters. She never had an abortion either, BTW
Right. Never being quite sure where your next meal is coming from is very soothing.
Well, nobody has guessed it yet, so I'll just throw this out there. Mammagrams. No way will they ever get me near one of those things.
=== Richard Stevens wants to shed some light on the murky origins of breast cancer. The University of Connecticut cancer epidemiologist says there still is no scientific consensus about why the incidence of the disease is so much higher in the dev
Hey ... how about the birth control which jacks with her hormones incessantly?
You think we'll ever see this tack investigated? Strangely enough, there's plenty of scientific evidence supporting the connection already. Odd that it gets no play in the media (or funding from the goverment).