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Cancer research shows promise

The prevailing wisdom about fighting breast cancer has long centered on early diagnosis, developing effective treatments and finding a cure.

But a new federal report recommends investing in breast cancer research that focuses on environmental factors and prevention, and we hope that federal officials are paying close attention.

Released Tuesday, “Breast Cancer and the Environment: Prioritizing Prevention,” follows a legislative mandate from the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act of 2008. Congress required the creation of an interagency committee as part of the legislation and the committee, in turn, was to make recommendations that address gaps in current breast cancer research.

The committee began its work in September 2010, according to committee chairwoman Michele Forman, a renowned expert in nutritional and perinatal epidemiology and professor at the University of Texas. Because the committee represented the scientific community, federal agencies and advocates equally, the group’s work over the past two years stayed focused on finding the best prevention strategies, Forman said.

A lot of money has been dedicated to research in diagnosing and curing breast cancer, the committee found, but very little has been spent on research to prevent breast cancer from occurring in the first place.

Although genetics can play a role in breast cancer risk, most breast cancers occur in people with no family history, so research on environmental factors has wide potential to decrease the cancer burden, the committee found.

This is the third such report from a distinguished panel of cancer experts calling attention to cancer prevention and the unrealized potential to decrease cancer deaths and suffering and, by extension, health care costs, according to Julia Brody, of the Silent Spring Institute.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and, after lung cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the U.S. More women die worldwide from breast cancer than any other cancer.

In the report, the committee defined four kinds of environmental exposure worthy of further research. They recommended research into lifestyle and behavioral factors; chemical substances; other physical, non-chemical exposures, such as radiation; and social and cultural influences.

In addition, the committee noted that women were the most vulnerable to environmental exposure during fetal development, puberty and pregnancy and made research recommendations accordingly.

In addition to many recommendations on how research into prevention can be accelerated, the committee recommended collecting and monitoring surveillance data.

Environmental exposures can be monitored with the same kind of data public health officials gather to monitor communicable diseases.

Once science knows more about how to prevent environmental exposures, Brody said, there is potential to reduce the risk not only for breast cancer but also for other kinds of cancers, as well as problems with fertility and child development.

We realize it won’t be easy to build consensus around cancer prevention — a lot of powerful economic forces would rather focus attention elsewhere — but we think it’s a battle worth fighting.

It’s high time we learned more about the influence of environmental exposure on our health, and thanks to this new report, maybe our national leaders will finally agree.