Written by Blessing Ekum - Nigeria.
If there is any health condition that has driven medical researchers to their wits’ end, it is cancer. For years, so much research has been carried out with time and money being spent in trying to understand and find a cure for this disease. In as much as cancer can ravage any part of the body, breast cancer has remained the nightmare of many women and has been said to be the most common form of cancer in women.
Research, in time past, have sought ways to unravel the mystery surrounding breast cancer, but little attention has been given to how a woman’s occupation can increase her risks of having breast cancer. In a world where women are increasingly taking up a huge chunk of the workforce, research has intensified on the relationship between breast cancer and a woman’s occupation.
According to Dr. Adenike Adeniji-Sofoluwe, a consultant radiologist with the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Oyo State, breast cancer is generally associated with lifestyle, genetic and physiological factors.
“Some of these risk factors are obesity, alcohol consumption, consuming excess of processed food, height, among others. This doesn’t mean women who have these attributes would have cancer of the breast; there are no hard and fast rules, but they are risk factors, meaning the chances of these women developing it are higher than those who do not expose themselves to these socio-environmental factors. They are not direct causes of cancer as the exact cause of cancer is not known, but it increases the likelihood of having it.
“Cancer comes about as a result of cells growing out of control and acting independently, invading other cells. Women who have never had children; those who start menstruation early and reach menopause late thus having a higher exposure to hormones (oestrogen and progesterone); genetic factors (the breast cancer 1 and 2 genes) have a higher risk of having cancer. It doesn’t mean having the genes automatically means having cancer of the breast, it only means that in addition to socio-environmental factors, her chances are higher. So she has to check herself much earlier and do away with the risk factors,” she says.
In a Canadian study conducted in Essex and Kent counties of Southern Ontario, a region reported to have a geographic clustering of persistent, excess breast cancer cases over time, and published in the Environmental Health Journal, it was discovered that women in jobs with potentially high exposures to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors had elevated breast cancer risk. In other words, a woman’s occupational environment has a close link with her chances of having cancer.
The study which was centred on the agricultural and industrial population had results which suggest that women who work in the food canning, metal working, gambling/bars, agriculture and automotive plastics/rubber industry appear to be at a greater risk of developing breast cancer.
For women in farms, it was discovered that several pesticides act as mammary carcinogens in animal bioassays and many are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). In another study, it was discovered that young women exposed to the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, DDT, before the age of 14 had a higher breast cancer riskbefore 50.
More so, many plastics have been found to release oestrogenic chemicals and additives as phthalates, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) have been identified as EDCs. The study shows that cumulative exposure to mixtures of various oestrogenic chemicals may compound the effect, as several monomers, additives, and related solvents, such as vinyl chloride, styrene, and acrylonitrile have been identified as mammary carcinogens in animal studies. It was discovered that there was a near doublingof the risk for female breast cancer among automotive plastics and rubber industry workers.
For women who work in bars and areas that have tobacco smokers, the risk is usually higher as a result of second-hand smoke, which is carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
In another research, alcohol consumption was discovered to increase the risk of having cancer of the breast. For women who feel stressed from work and escape with alcohol or work in places that expose them to excess alcohol intake, their chances for breast cancer are higher.
For postmenopausal women in sedentary jobs who do not exercise and become obese, the risk of breast cancer is elevated. The increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer is thought to be due to increased levels of oestrogen in obese women. After menopause, when the ovaries stop producing hormones, fat tissue becomes the biggest source of oestrogen. Since obese women have more fat tissue, their oestrogen levels are higher, potentially leading to more rapid growth of oestrogen-responsive breast tumours.
The American Cancer Society posits that several studies have suggested that women who work at night—for example, nurses on a night shift—may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Researchers attribute this to changes in levels of melatonin, a hormone whose production is affected by the body’s exposure to light. Though it is a fairly recent finding, and more studies are looking at this issue.
Dr. Adeniji-Sofoluwe adds “exposure to radiation increases the chances of cancer of any kind. Being in a profession where a woman is constantly exposed to radiation increases the chances of developing breast cancer, for instance, someone in nuclear medicine, who is not taking the necessary precautions such as protecting her upper body. Although, these are risk factors and doesn’t mean that she would definitely develop breast cancer.”