Why Do Women Get Breast Cancer?
Do you know what a “perfect storm” is? It’s a meteorological term that describes a weather event in which every element comes together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a massive storm endowed with dangerously high winds, huge seas, record rainfall, a 100-year blizzard, or any combination of those attributes. If you read the book or saw the movie of that same name, you’ll understand just how overwhelming, how dangerous and life-threatening, a perfect storm can be. Kind of like cancer.
For so many of us, it took a perfect storm of events for us to develop cancer. And to this day, we don’t even know what those events were. Did a random series of childhood incidents set the stage for cancer? Was it playing hide-and-seek in the cornfield that had been regularly dusted with DDT? Living in an old house whose granite-silled cellar was filled with radon? Getting your period early?
Or was it the roll of the dice that’s your genetic makeup, your singular life put together from millions of possible combinations of genes? Does your mother harbor an increased propensity for breast cancer, something she passed on to you along with her beautiful blue eyes? Do you have the BRCA I or II gene? Or is there just something along that 12” strand of DNA that said “OK, the duct cells in this woman’s left breast are going to start to become cancerous when she’s 38 years old”?
Meteorologists can track a hurricane across the Atlantic, plot the course of a howling blizzard across the Great Plains, the Midwest, and into New England. They can see tornadoes being born, and estimate with fair accuracy the degree of their potential deadliness. But doctors have struggled for decades to figure out why women get breast cancer. How two women can live seemingly parallel lives–same town (even the same neighborhood), same lifestyle, same degree of health–and one will get invasive breast cancer and die within 2 years, while the other will live to be 90. Weathermen can measure the wind, plot isobars, take an airplane inside a hurricane to study how it’s born and grows. Doctors can only see the cancer storm after it’s well established, often so far along that its momentum can’t be stopped, and it destroys everything in its path.
But there’s reason to believe that the mystery of cancer can change, given the trajectory of research. Doctors can now definitively connect most kinds of breast cancer to increased estrogen; and high levels of estrogen can be linked to hormone replacement therapy, early start of menstruation, and obesity. The discovery of the BRCA genes was a big step for the small percentage of women who harbor them. Researchers caution us against over-consumption of alcohol; there’s thought to be a breast cancer link there, as well as with eating too much saturated fat. There are even possible connections between cancer and things we’ve heretofore thought of as part of our everyday lives: eating a char-broiled hamburger, removing nail polish, wearing perfume, enjoying the annual fish fry down at the VFW hall.
None of these things is guaranteed to strike you down. But some combination of circumstances–some perfect storm of events that began before you were born, and stretches to the moment you’re diagnosed–is responsible for your breast cancer. Some day, the mysterious origins of this disease will be tracked, plotted, and ultimately understood. And it will finally be defused.