TODAY   |  December 10, 2011

Study: Environment contributes to breast cancer

A new study suggests that a growing list of chemicals that find their way into the environment make it critical that women examine their lifestyles to avoid breast cancer. Dr. Marisha Weiss, an oncologist, discusses the study’s findings and recommendations.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

AMY ROBACH, co-host: This morning on TODAY'S HEALTH , women and breast cancer . Doctors, researchers and scientists are wrapping up a breast cancer symposium in San Antonio , and here to talk about some of the key findings there is Dr. Marisa Weiss . She's an oncologist and the founder of breastcancer.org. Dr. Weiss , good morning.

Dr. MARISA WEISS (Oncologist, Lankenau Medical Center): Thank you.

ROBACH: And let's focus first on this latest breast cancer study out this week from the Institute of Medicine . And it's providing women with the big picture . As best as science can tell us right now, what are the increasing risks for breast cancer ? And if we haven't been doing it before, we need to start focusing on lifestyle, correct?

Dr. WEISS: Absolutely. I mean, breast cancer is already the most common cancer to affect women and its incidence is expected to double globally in the next 30 years. And only one of out 10 cases of breast cancer can be due to the single -- the single rare genes that you inherit from a mother or father, which means that most breast cancer is due to how the outside environment affects our body's inside environment and our health.

ROBACH: And that's surprising because I think a lot of people think, 'Well, if my mom didn't have it, my sister didn't have it, I don't have a female in my family that I can...'

Dr. WEISS: 'I'm off the hook.'

ROBACH: Yeah, right. It's not going to happen to me.

Dr. WEISS: But even -- right. But even the slim vegetarian yoga instructor with no family history has to be concerned about reducing her risk of breast cancer .

ROBACH: Let's talk about what -- what's been found. Specifically they're talking about weight, what we eat, whether we exercise, how much we drink, whether or not we smoke. I mean, this all sounds like healthy living and making smart choices. But these do have an impact on breast cancer prevention, all of them.

Dr. WEISS: Absolutely. So, you know, I'm -- not -- besides being an oncologist and practice at Lankenau , I'm also a breast cancer survivor. So I have to take this very seriously, both at -- both at work and at home. So getting to and sticking to a healthy weight, exercising three to four hours a week, five to seven hours a week is better. Limiting alcohol use, which is hard to do this season, with the festivities coming up, but limiting to three or fewer drinks per week. Avoiding smoking. Those are well-established risk factors .

ROBACH: And there was also a study about the environment and cancer risks -- breast cancer risks. So how do environmental factors, like chemicals that we can encounter every day in products and all around us, affect breast cancer ?

Dr. WEISS: Basically, what we eat, what we drink, the medicines and supplements we take, the personal products we use can all affect how our breast cells are built and run. And there's so many more chemicals out in the environment today than there ever used to be, and our breast cells are very sensitive to those. And those chemicals can kind of act like hormones and maybe bring on extra breast cell growth , including abnormal growth, like cancer.

ROBACH: And that said, you know, they're in what we eat and what we put on our face, products, these types of things.

Dr. WEISS: Yes.

ROBACH: How do you avoid all of that, then?

Dr. WEISS: Well...

ROBACH: And what do you do about it?

Dr. WEISS: There's like bisphenol A. You can avoid that by using hard -- by avoiding the hard water bottles and using a glass water bottle or a metal water bottle . Avoiding the hormones that are used in beef and dairy cattle by getting organic nonfat yogurt, as an example, buying organic foods that tend to be treated with the most pesticides. So getting those from organic sources are just some examples. So there are some meaningful changes that you can make in your everyday life to try to reduce your exposure to some of these unhealthy chemicals.

ROBACH: All right. And as we're talking about prevention, there's also a debate that's been going on about screening and when women should get it, at what age or what tests are effective. What are you suggestions, your recommendations?

Source: American Cancer Society

Dr. WEISS: Well, breast cancer is the most common cancer to affect women. Mammography has come so far. So I do recommend digital mammography each year starting at age 40. Examining yourself on a regular basis. Go into your doctor and getting a good breast self-examination. And then also making these meaningful changes in your everyday life . Breast health is women's health, so with all this effort, there's going to be a big payoff in the long run.

ROBACH: All right. Dr. Marisa Weiss , thank you so much , we appreciate it. Great information.