Breast cancer risk linked to “windows of susceptibility”

Research has found that growth and development are vulnerable times for girls and women.

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 transdisciplinary research collaboration aimed at understanding the role that various environmental factors, such as diet or chemicals found in popular commercial products, have in influencing the development of breast cancer in women. These scientific findings are then translated into easy-to-understand messages for women and young girls, teaching that the avoidance of these exposures may ultimately reduce the incidence of breast cancer. A primary focus of the BCERP is the consequence of exposure to harmful environmental factors during “windows of susceptibility.”

A window of susceptibility is a particular time in a woman’s life, such as puberty, pregnancy, lactation, or menopause, when factors like a high-fat diet or exposure to chemicals like phthalates have an especially dramatic impact on mammary gland development and/or growth. It is important to remember that impacts during pregnancy may affect both mother and fetus. These developmental periods are susceptible because of what is happening to the body at that time. It is during these periods when breasts are undergoing growth or change. The introduction of a risk factor like a chemical that mimics estrogen, a natural hormone in the human body, or a high-fat diet can alter the growth cycle of cells and the development of breast structures. Researchers have found that this disruption may lead to the development of cancerous cells later in life. Education about windows of susceptibility and how they relate to breast cancer development is crucial, especially for mothers of young daughters and other family members. Those who are at risk need to know at what stages these windows take place, how they are related to breast cancer development and what sorts of lifestyle choices and products are especially risky during these times.

While there is still a great deal that is not known about these windows of susceptibility and which risks are especially relevant to one window or the other, programs like the BCERP aim to provide a more detailed understanding of what happens in women’s bodies during periods of growth or change. The BCERP also tries to understand how this knowledge can be best communicated to motivate women to make lifestyle and product choices that may help decrease their chances of developing breast cancer, and to be sensitive to these windows of susceptibility

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