Breast cancer and the Environment Research Program

MSU Extension and Michigan State University’s are working together to further breast cancer research.

Michigan State University Extension has partnered with the Michigan State University Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program. MSU Extension educators with backgrounds in health education are talking to groups throughout Michigan regarding MSU research focused on environmental factors that impact breast cancer in women.

The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) is a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored transdisciplinary collaboration with several specific goals. First among these goals is the investigation of how environmental factors may promote the development of breast cancer. A second is the study of female reproductive development with a focus on how these environmental factors affect maturation, as changes in the course of development, such as the timing of female puberty, are associated with breast cancer risk. The third goal is the development of public health messages for women and girls regarding environmental exposure based on scientific findings. By “environmental factors” we mean anything in a person’s environment, such as the foods they eat or the chemicals in which they come in contact. The BCERP is called transdisciplinary because it is a collaboration between biologists, epidemiologists, communication scientists and breast cancer advocates/educators across the United States. There are six BCERP project sites across the United States and each site’s project includes biology studies, human studies, community outreach and dissemination activities. The various projects within the BCERP work together to ensure that breast cancer and the role of environmental factors in its development is understood from a number of directions and is communicated to the public in ways they understand.

The BCERP team at Michigan State University has studied the impact of a diet high in animal fat on breast cancer risk. Recently, their studies have extended to how such a diet may interact with chemicals in personal care products that can mimic the action of estrogen. Most of this research uses exposure of mice to these kinds of environmental factors, as mammary development in mice has many similarities to that in humans. To date, this research has shown that eating a diet that is particularly high in animal fat can lead to faster mammary gland growth and a greater risk of developing breast cancer in the experimental mice. This is consistent with epidemiology studies in humans that associate a diet high in animal fat with greater breast cancer risk. This research has also examined exposure to these factors and others during various life stages, including puberty and young adulthood. Puberty is a time when mammary glands are especially susceptible to abnormal growth. These life stages, known as “windows of susceptibility,” are times when normal changes in the body’s physiology may change the way in which it interacts with environmental exposures to alter breast cancer risk.

 There have also been a number of MSU studies that have examined how breast cancer-related messages are presented to women. This type of research has found that there may be a lot of information about breast cancer available to women, but most of it is not presented in particularly motivating or persuasive ways. This is especially true for audiences who may be at lower literacy levels or who are particularly unaware of the connection between the environment and breast cancer. Furthermore, most of the messages women remember and use to direct their actions tend to be about breast cancer detection. Very few are about prevention, pointing to a greater need for BCERP outreach activities. MSU researchers have held focus groups and conducted message-testing studies that have shown that women are still quite confused about what causes breast cancer and the steps that can be taken to stay healthy.

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