Silly Scientists

I don't think I've ever mentioned it, but my new job involves breast cancer research. When people ask me what I do, I avoid saying that because it sounds so snotty but I really do think it is an awesome job. I loved my previous job and when we moved, I didn't think I would be able to find something I liked as much but I love this one even more!

Anyway, since I have very little knowledge about the subject, my boss has been sending me to seminars around campus so I get more familiar with the field. All seminars pretty much start off the same way, they talk about the prevalence of breast cancer and why it is important to study it, and how genetics effect breast cancer so that is why they are studying ___ genetic component, or how environmental factors play a role so that is why they are studying ___ environmental component. Then they go into specifics of their research, followed by questions from the audience.

Most of the talks are interesting but a little over my head so I spend the whole time trying to figure out what is going on (if the speaker is good) or trying not to fall asleep (if the speaker is not so good) but it is really interesting to see how scientists think. They have spent years studying, not just breast cancer, but one specific gene or one specific protein or pathway. The end result of all that focus can sometimes lead them to miss the forest for the trees.

One seminar dealt with the effects of estrogen and progesterone on breast cancer and he started with some facts that really stuck out to me:
  • Women who give birth before the age of 35 reduce their risk of breast cancer by up to 50% with the decrease being greater the younger the mother - insert joke about not letting the government know he is advocating teenage pregnancy or they will take away his grant money :-) I love scientific humor.
  • Women who give birth to their first child after the age of 35 actually increase their risk of breast cancer.
  • Removal of the ovaries of a young woman cuts the risk of breast cancer to less than 1%.
He then went on the finish his talk and asked for questions. The first one was be far the most interesting...

Question: Since we know how effective ovary removal is, how long do you think it will take before this is used as a standard preventative method?

Speaker: Blink. Blink.

Speaker: More awkward silence as he tries not to laugh

Speaker: Well, I don't think, I mean, there are other ramifications, that is... (regains composure) unfortunately we know from research done in the '30s and '40s on institutionalized women that with ovary removal, levels of estrogen and progesterone are reduced to very low levels as are their chances of getting breast cancer, but I don't think we will ever reach the point where ovary removal on young women is a preventative measure in anything but rare circumstances.

I must commend this speaker because I think I would have just laughed in the guy's face. I would be very surprised if doctors abandoned the concept of "first do no harm" so much that they would routinely remove perfectly healthy ovaries from teenage girls. But then again, your not safe from surprises till your dead.


  1. How has Planned Parenthood not latched onto this concept of ovary removal? Think of the problems it would solve. /sarcasm/ Oh, yeah, but that might put them out of that OTHER business which is their mainstay.

  2. What is your scientific view of the argument that abortions (and/or miscarriage) increase the risk of breast cancer? To me, it seems logical that there may be some link, but there's just so much shouting over the issue.

    My ob/gyn also told me that breastfeeding decreases breast cancer risk.

    So, I guess I've done all I can do: I had my first child at 20, almost 21(we'd been married 2 1/2 years) and I've nursed somewhere around 3 years & 4 months, cumulative (3 daughters). :)

  3. Man, here I go trying to have a lighthearted post after all that heavy stuff last week and you guys draw me back into deep water - just kidding, I love having opinions.

    Karen - I can't really say. The reasoning behind it is very strong and a variety of previous data showed there was a connection (not just the one major study that is often debunked) but current studies are not as clear.

    Interestingly, there are also more and more studies coming out showing a link between oral contraception and breast cancer. We are now hitting a point in time when we can study the effects of long term use and I am really interested to see how that plays out, especially in public awareness aspects.

    For both of those cases, I would like to say that time will tell, but science is political so I don't know if that is true or not.

  4. Didn't mean to put you on the spot. Thanks for answering!

    And if you ever want to kill a nice (Christian) party, just ask for views on birth control.

    Just kidding, of course. I've been involved in some -let's call them- fun b.c. discusions, but none I actually instigated. ;)