If you're under 50, you can't remember the dark days when the tobacco industry was winning the PR war, insisting that smoking wasn't linked to cancer. That all changed in 1964 when the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health created a seismic shift, alerting the nation to the health risks of tobacco and, notably, moving the focus from individual behavior to the public-health impacts of smoking. The report ushered in an anti-smoking era, complete with a national strategy that reshaped the research agenda and inspired policies and public education initiatives that greatly reduced smoking across the nation.
With the release of a groundbreaking federal advisory report today, there's hope that we're entering a breast cancer prevention era -- one in which my young granddaughters won't remember a time when the chemical industry got away with its story that breast cancer isn't linked to chemical exposures, and when the only focus on prevention was on personal behavior. The report, "Breast Cancer and the Environment: Prioritizing Prevention," chronicles the science showing that environmental factors like toxic chemical exposure increase breast cancer risk, and finds that focusing on identifying and eliminating these factors presents the greatest opportunity to prevent breast cancer. It calls for a national breast cancer prevention strategy.
I had the privilege of being a member of the congressionally mandated committee that wrote the report. The Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee convened for more than two years to review the scientific evidence and develop recommendations. The resulting 270-page report is nothing short of groundbreaking -- not because what it says is new, but because this is the first time a federal body has weighed in so definitively on the subject of breast cancer prevention.
The organization I lead, the Breast Cancer Fund, has been examining the evidence linking breast cancer to exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation for more than a decade. Meanwhile, breast cancer rates continue to be unconscionably high: Today, a woman's lifetime odds are a dreadful 1 in 8. The vast majority of those diagnosed have no family history of the disease.
The report poses what should no longer be considered radical questions: Don't we have an obligation to do all that we can to prevent this disease -- to stop women (and increasingly men) from ever getting the disease? Shouldn't we work to lessen the burden this disease places on those diagnosed, their families, the medical system and our society?
The report does much more than pose these questions; it provides a roadmap for prioritizing prevention: Intensify the study of chemical and physical factors that potentially influence the risk of developing and likelihood of surviving breast cancer. Plan strategically across federal, state and nongovernmental organizations to accelerate the pace of scientific research on breast cancer and the environment, and to foster innovation and collaborative science.
But a report, no matter how visionary and no matter how obviously practical, requires implementation, and that will take political will. The report's first stop is the desk of U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who must create an action plan to implement the report. This action plan can lay the groundwork for a national prevention strategy that will require commitment and hard work from the Obama administration and Congress.
So the challenge is on. Will this report create a watershed moment as the 1964 Surgeon General's report did? Will we finally, as a nation, embrace the notion that we can and must prevent breast cancer? For the sake of my granddaughters and their generation, and to honor the millions who are living with and have died from this disease, the answer has to be yes. It's well past time that the breast cancer prevention era begin.