Tuesday, February 17, 2004

scary if true

Researchers are investigating a possible link between the use of antibiotics and the incidence of breast cancer.

Now, the research is in a very early phase. It would be bad journalism to raise a hue and cry about this before more is known. One scientist involved with the study acknowledges that women who don't use as many antibiotics may be healthier to begin with and thus less prone to BC. Or that the diseases women are taking antibiotics to fight are weakening their immune systems, or in some other way setting the stage for cancer. And if it is the antibiotics that are causing the cancer, the mechanism by which that happens is unknown.

What is clear is that we have become overdependent on antibiotics. If in fact they are also opening us up to cancer, that's another strike against the profligacy with which they are requested and prescribed. We're using these drugs too much and for too many reasons, and the results are frightening.

Everyone's heard by now that there are antibiotic-resistant strains of many of the bugs we take antibiotics to fight. It might not be as well known that penicillin, to take one example, is now only effective against something like three bacteria--down from more than a hundred. Scientists keep developing new classes of antibiotics, but they freely admit that the bugs are catching up.

And then there's the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture, a procedure that has raised so much concern that legislation has been proposed to severely curtail the agricultural use of antibiotics. If the steak you're eating came from a cow that was fattened with, say, erythromycin, you're taking in that erythromycin.

Not to mention that antibiotic residues are ending up in the water supply.

So we're getting it in our food and our water, but we're also getting antibiotics from our doctors, and some activists are blaming doctor eagerness for antibiotic overuse. But that's not entirely fair. It's not unusual for patients to demand antibiotics, even for conditions against which the drugs are useless, such as the common cold. I know I'm not the only person who continually confuses viruses with bacterial infections; too many people don't understand that antibiotics don't do jack against viruses.

On top of which, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone, many consumers don't take the full course of antibiotics when they are indicated. We stop when we feel better, but the bacterium's still vital and ready to shift. Bacteria are much smaller and much faster than we are; they evolve much more quickly. And when we don't take the full course of antibiotics for a condition, we become the Petri dish in which the bacterium can turn into something else, and from which it can move on to some other host. It's like some sci-fi movie where an astronaut comes back carrying spores that will turn him into a evil, slavering, goo-covered monster intent on subverting and eating all humanity.

Well, maybe that's a little dramatic. But you get the idea.

All of these factors alone should be making us rethink our dependence on antibiotics, particularly the broad-spectrum variety. But taken in conjunction with this new possibility, I find myself wanting to head straight for the Vitamin C and the organic produce aisle. The SF Bay area has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the world. There are many theories why this is so. My personal favorite involves the oil refineries up in the Carquinez Straits, but I accept that there is probably a whole constellation of causes, vulnerabilities, genetic predilections, and so forth. Which doesn't really make it any less scary.

As an aside, speaking of genetics, if you're basing the way you live on test results indicating whether you express BRCA1 or BRCA2, this article from the Council for Responsible Genetics is interesting, if discomfiting. The author suggests that those markers aren't as useful as the ones that indicate what course breast cancer will take in a particular woman--testing that can only be done once there are cancerous cells to be analyzed.

The up side is that if there's anything to this link--and antibiotics are causative--finally there's something solid we can do about breast cancer, as individuals. I am cautiously excited.