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Breast cancer and antibiotics

February 17th, 2004 · No Comments

Previous entries in this blog have documented my addiction to antibiotic prescriptions. How I call the clinic at the first sign of someone’s sniffles. How I pummel our pediatrician, begging and pleading until he starts scribbling secret notes to our pharmacist. I don’t feel life is complete unless I’m dosing out spoonfuls of sticky pink syrup three times a day.

So I’d only be too happy to hop on this bandwagon and begin bashing antibiotics as a cause of cancer. Of course! Knew it all along. Never trusted that stuff anyway.

This study was done by local researchers at the UW, and I heard about it on the news last night. At first I thought about blogging it before bedtime but then I changed my mind when I heard how flawed it was. The researchers clearly state that they are not sure what this link means. The significance is not clear. And they did not have a control group, a group of women who had infections but did not receive antibiotics.

Yet today this is getting high billing on MSNBC, The Seattle Times and time on NPR’s All Things Considered. (here is the publication in the Journal of American Medical Association). Perhaps the association between antibiotics and breast cancer is clear, but without further explanation, what good is it to publicize this study? And why is it receiving so much attention when it may mean so little?

The fact that all kinds of antibiotics had the same effect may indicate that it is not dependent on a particular drug. What I am wondering, based on my experience, is perhaps what needs to be studied even more than the antibiotic therapy is the stress level in the lives of these women. I spent a few years working in a laboratory, performing experiments to explore how stress affects the immune cells ability to fight viral infections. So from that experience, I have a little idea how complicated this process is to study but also how much stress can play a part in health.

Without a control group of infected/ill women who didn’t receive antibiotics, it is quite possible to say that perhaps it is something in the infections themselves that triggers the cancer. I imagine that stress might play a role in that process. It was easy to see in the laboratory how mice under chronic or acute stress suffered suppressed immune responses.

Or perhaps the women who go to the doctor to get antibiotics are women who get more stressed about their health than other women. There’s a whole study in that issue as well: how and when people decide to get treated. This study was based from 17 years worth of continual medical records at Group Health – which limits how many and what kind of patients were included. After all, women who have access to medical care are probably more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer or infections than women who don’t go to the doctor.

The level of antibiotic usage with significance for cancer is intense – 500 days or 25 prescriptions in 17 years. The 500 days over 17 years amounts to 29 days a year of drugs. Many of these women had chronic skin or respiratory infections. Perhaps these women in general had weakened immune systems. I myself only use antibiotics perhaps once every two years (seems to happen to me during my pregnancies, which is also a time of immune suppression (and stress)).

Studies that show an association are important, but what is more significant is the reason for the association. Many times this can be difficult to determine. I remember when I was taking Clomid for fertility. My ob/gyn refused to prescribe it for me more than four times: studies had shown that a certain number of Clomid cycles had higher association with ovarian cancer. But when I was referred to a reproductive endocrinologist, he seemed to dismiss those study results, saying that infertile women, women who had never had children, might be more likely to get ovarian cancer anyway.

Again, with so much that is uncertain, I don’t know why this study is receiving so much attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if antibiotics caused cancer but I wish scientists would wait to publicize until they had come to more sound conclusions. Why all the attention? Perhaps it is the frightening thought that something simple, something helpful, such as a cure for a cold, can kill you. Maybe the media’s trying to make the most of it: Put “antibiotics” and “breast cancer” together in a sentence and see how many people tune in to the story. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. There are many things in daily life that can kill. Even simple things. Such as being simple-minded about what is significant science.

Tags: news