My interest in parabens came about after I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was only 32. I didn’t consider myself to be in a high-risk category given my age and I had no genetic history of breast cancer. On top of which I was a healthy eating, running fanatic which all flies in the face of being a high-risk candidate.
The year before my diagnosis the controversial parabens research study was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology but it didn’t appear on my radar until I had finished my treatment.
So, what are parabens? Parabens are used as a preservative in skincare products to extend their shelf life. Parabens can lead to elevated levels of oestrogen, the hormone that fuels most breast cancers. Parabens are also used to preserve food.
Any link or evidence to suggest that parabens might play a part in breast cancer risk is a very scary prospect. The presence of parabens found in the breast tumours of twenty women in the 2004 study is not conclusive evidence of the parabens causing cancer and indeed this was the conclusion made by Darbre, the study leader. A further study was carried out by the same team in 2008 and they found parabens in the breast tissue of forty women.
A follow up study was carried out in 2012 by Darbre where it was reported that she repeated her results from both the 2004 and 2008 studies and that parabens levels were now four times higher than they were previously. But still this is not evidence that parabens can cause cancer.
Further cause for concern for breast cancer patients was raised when a study conducted at the California Pacific Medical Centre in 2011 showed that two chemicals (methylparaben and BPA) can interfere with the effectiveness of Tamoxifen; is a drug used to treat hormone positive breast cancer by blocking oestrogen, a drug that I took daily for five years.
Furthermore, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2015 suggests that parabens may have adverse effects at lower concentrations than was previously thought.
And more recently in 2016, a new study linked breast cancer risk with endocrine disrupting chemicals. The research which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives identified a link between high levels of xenoestrogens (environmental oestrogens) in blood and breast cancer risk.
The Darbre studies have been widely criticised for many reasons including the number of samples in the study were small and there was no control group to eliminate bias. The ethics of using a control group in this type of study is a consideration.
Parabens alone may have a weak oestrogenic effect. However, in combination with other hormone disrupting chemicals from various sources this could add up to a much bigger risk. And on top of common breast cancer risk factors this could increase overall risk significantly. The risk from parabens however small needs to be researched as part of the bigger picture.
There are many unanswered questions that justify further research. What were the parabens doing in the breast tumours? How did they get there? Did they contribute to the cancer growth in any way? Did they affect treatment outcome? What was the source of the parabens?
Cancer is a complicated disease and it’s a devastating disease. There are many variables. After going through it you see the world through a different set of eyes. And you have to keep asking questions. Breast cancer is at epidemic levels and breast cancer in young women is increasing. Why?