Too little of the money the federal government spends on breast cancer research goes toward finding environmental causes of the disease and ways to prevent it, according to a new report from a group of scientists, government officials and patient advocates established by Congress to examine the research.
The report, "Breast Cancer and the Environment — Prioritizing Prevention," published this week, focuses on environmental factors, which it defines broadly to include behaviors like alcohol intake and exercise; exposures to chemicals like pesticides, industrial pollutants, consumer products and drugs; radiation; and social and socioeconomic factors.
The 270-page report notes that scientists have long known that genetic and environmental factors contribute individually and also interact with one another to affect breast cancer risk. Studies of women who have moved from Japan to the United States, for instance, show that their breast cancer risk increases to match that of American women.
"We know things like radiation might cause breast cancer, but we don't know much that we can say specifically causes breast cancer in terms of chemicals," said Michael Gould, a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a co-chairman of the 23-member committee that prepared the report.
At the two federal agencies that spend the most on breast cancer, only about 10 percent of the research in recent years involved environment and prevention. From 2008 to 2010, the National Institutes of Health spent $357 million on environmental and prevention-related research in breast cancer, about 16 percent of all the financing for the disease. From 2006 to 2010, the Defense Department spent $52.2 million on prevention-oriented research, about 8.6 percent of the money devoted to breast cancer. Those proportions were too low, the group said, although it declined to say what the level should be.
Jeanne Rizzo, another member of the committee and a member of the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group, said there is an urgent need to study and regulate chemical exposures and inform the public about potential risks.
"We're extending life with breast cancer, making it a chronic disease, but we're not preventing it," she said.
The report is the result of the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act, which was passed in 2008 and required the secretary of health and human services to create a committee to study breast cancer research.