Oh, no, antiperspirants cause breast cancer! Well, not really…

As I’ve said before recently, I have mixed emotions regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On the one hand, I look forward to it because it provides us with a pretext to get out science-based messages about breast cancer and to highlight a lot of the cool science that we do at our cancer center. On the other hand, the quacks see an opportunity in Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread their message too. That message, not surprisingly, generally involves attacking science-based modalities for the detection and treatment of breast cancer and promoting their “alternative” methods. For example, last year, Christiane Northrup promoted thermography as somehow being better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. It’s not. Yet there she is this year again, still promoting the same nonsense. In years past, I’ve seen people like Dennis Byrne promoting a link between abortion and breast cancer, a link that is not supported by science. I’ve seen the likes of Mike Adams claiming that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is nothing more than a conspiracy by the male-dominated “cancer industry” to keep women down and misinformation about “myths” of breast cancer while likening the “cancer industry” to Nazi extermination camp commanders and chemotherapy to Zyklon-B. I kid you not about that last part. Indeed, during October, I frequently get to look forward to images like this one or this one:

If you click on those links, you’ll get the idea.

This year, things have struck me as being unusually quiet on the Breast Cancer Awareness Month-related quackery front. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been anything. For example, anti-vaccine activists have tried (and failed miserably) to co-opt the month to turn it into “Vaccine Injury Awareness Month.” Also, the October-oriented promostion of breast cancer quackery seems to have started later in the month (usually the Adamses of the world are chomping at the bit and start their barrage right around October 1) and been somewhat lacking in the sheer–shall we say?–looniness of past years. Sure, it’s possible that I haven’t been looking in the “right” (if you can call them that) places. There is still a week left in the month; I’ll try harder. In the meantime, leave it to Dr. Joe Mercola to provide me with a couple of examples.

For example, just last week Mercola dropped a major blob of misinformation about breast cancer upon a breathlessly waiting world, asking: Are Aluminum-Containing Antiperspirants Contributing To Breast Cancer In Women? Orac, as is unusual for him, will cut to the chase. The answer is: Almost certainly not, although Mercola tries his damnedest to dance around the evidence to demonstrate that it is a horrific risk factor for breast cancer. Now, as is usual for him, Orac will explain.

Specifically, if you believe Mercola, it’s supposed to be the aluminum:

Research, including one study published this year in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, has shown that the aluminum is not only absorbed by your body, but is deposited in your breast tissue and even can be found in nipple aspirate fluid a fluid present in the breast duct tree that mirrors the microenvironment in your breast. Researchers determined that the mean level of aluminum in nipple aspirate fluid was significantly higher in breast cancer-affected women compared to healthy women, which may suggest a role for raised levels of aluminum as a biomarker for identification of women at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

The report discussed is a small pilot study of 35 patients, 16 with breast cancer and 19 with no cancer. While the results are somewhat provocative, it is important to remember that (1) the study is small and (2) the significance of the results are unknown. More importantly, there were a lot of confounding factors not controlled for. For example, presumably both women with breast cancer and those without in the study there was no serious attempt to control for confounding factors or to quantify the use of aluminum antiperspirants. Indeed, there are significant differences between the two groups. For example, the median age of the cancer group was 56, while it was 40 for the no cancer group. Perhaps something as simple as age could account for the difference. Does something happen after menopause leading to increased accumulation of aluminum from the natural exposure that we all have? Who knows? No analysis was done. Another possibility is that breast cancer might somehow accumulate aluminum more than normal tissue.

In other words, the study tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not aluminum-containing antiperspirants contribute to breast cancer risk.

Mercola’s next red herring is this:

In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, researchers tested breast samples from 17 breast-cancer patients who had undergone mastectomies. The women who used antiperspirants had deposits of aluminum in their outer breast tissue. Concentrations of aluminum were higher in the tissue closest to the underarm than in the central breast.

Why is this a glaring red flag?

Aluminum is not normally found in the human body, so this study was a pretty clear sign that the metal was being absorbed from antiperspirant sprays and roll-ons. Please note that aluminum is typically only found in antiperspirants. If you are using a deodorant-only product it is unlikely to contain aluminum but might contain other chemicals that could be a concern.

Aluminum is not normally found in the human body? Did Mercola even read any of the articles he cited? The first article in and of itself demonstrated that aluminum is found in measurable quantities in normal human breast tissue nipple aspirates. Its finding was simply that it was found at higher levels in breasts with cancer. Then, the second article that there was detectable levels of aluminum in normal breast tissue, too! Again, what it purported to find was that there was more aluminum in areas of the breast closer to the underarm.

In any case, the claim that aluminum antiperspirants cause breast cancer is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. The argument you will frequently see made is that most breast cancers occur in the upper outer quadrant of the breast. Because that quadrant of the breast is closest to the underarm, which is where antiperspirants are used, it must be the antiperspirants! And global warming is most definitely due to the decreasing number of pirates over the last three centuries. In fact, about half of all breast cancers develop in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, but it’s not because of antiperspirant use; it’s just because of a very simple thing. There is more breast tissue there than in other quadrants of the breast, and the number of breast cancers diagnosed there is proportional to the amount of breast tissue. Moreover, there is good evidence that there is no correlation between the use of antiperspirants and breast cancer. At the most, we can say that there might be such a link, but a fair assessment of the evidence suggests that such a link is highly unlikely.

I can’t help but remind my long time readers that this is not the first time we’ve seen this “antiperspirants cause breast cancer” pseudoscience. CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who has become the de facto anti-vaccine reporter in the mainstream media since Dan Olmsted left UPI, is drawn to pseudoscience like the proverbial moth to flame. Two years ago, she tried to make the same claim that Mercola is making based on articles in Medical Hypotheses (one of the all-time favorite journals for cranks to publish in) using an graph that would do the Flying Spaghetti Monster proud.

Let’s just put it this way. If you share a scientific belief with Sharyl Attkisson, it’s almost as bad as sharing a scientific belief with Mike Adams. And Joe Mercola, too, of course.

Finally, let’s conclude by moving on to the fun stuf. Not content with rehashing old, implausible, and scientifically discredited risk factors for breast cancer causation, Mercola can’t resist adding to the nonsense with some real howlers. For example:

In his 1975 article, Chinese Lessons For Modern Chiropractors, Dr. George Goodheart – known as “the father of Applied Kinesiology” — explained what he calls the “Antenna Effect.” Essentially, he discovered that by taping a small metal ball over an acupuncture point, you could achieve longer-term stimulation to that point in question. This discovery led to what are now known as AcuAids — small magnetic patches that are used by thousands of doctors across the world.

However, just like a small metal ball, any metal constantly applied to any given energy channel or point on your body can have the same stimulating effect. Over time, the continued stimulation can cause a subsequent decrease in function of important neuro-lymphatic reflex points located below your breasts.

In addition, the metal wire may act as an antenna attracting electromagnetic fields, which may also increase your risk of breast cancer. Fortunately, you can easily remove the piece of metal wire and replace it with a plastic rod of comparable size, which will provide the support but not simulate the antenna effect.

Yes, that’s right. Don’t wear those underwire bras, ladies. They concentrate electromagnetic radiation around the breasts. This is, of course, utterly ridiculous; the magnitude of such fields is minimal and the likelihood that they have any effect whatsoever on the risk of breast cancer even less. I would point out that advice from someone whose claim to fame is to be the “father of applied kinesiology,” a particularly silly form of quackery is likely to be as based in science as applied kinesiology is; i.e., not at all.

Much of the rest of the article includes typical misinformation about mammography, including exaggerated fears about the radiation. I’ve discussed such issues before many, many times before; so I refer you to various links. Suffice it to say: Mercola, as usual, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is the proverbial two-edged sword. On the one hand, those of us in the field can take advantage of the event to highlight issues of breast cancer and breast health and try to call attention to new science and new discoveries about breast cancer. On the other hand, we have promoters of pseudoscience like Mike Adams and Joe Mercola to contend with. Given that there’s still a week left in the month, I have to wonder what, if anything, they’ll come up with next. Whatever it is, you can be sure it won’t be based on science. You can also be sure that, if it somehow catches my attention and represents a teachable moment, I’ll be applying some not-so-Respectful Insolence to it.