Anyone who has picked up a magazine or walked through a department store recently knows that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s hard to miss the displays of pink sneakers, vacuum cleaners, blenders, body washes and other products that benefit breast cancer charities.
But before you buy, ask yourself this question: Will your donation really help women in relevant ways, or will you simply be funding the same useless experiments that have been going on for decades?
In laboratories across the country, researchers are busy infecting healthy mice and rats with breast cancer even though such experiments hold little promise for actual human patients.
Pregnant rats are forced to breathe cigarette smoke for four hours a day in an effort to determine how it affects the development of breast cancer in their offspring. Mice are injected with cancer cells to induce tumor growth, then fed diets rich in flaxseed oil and seaweed to see if they have any effect on breast cancer. Rats are forced to live in social isolation, causing them great distress—not unlike human depression—to observe how stress influences breast cancer development.
The basic model of research has not changed all that much since President Nixon first declared war on cancer in the 1970s: Grow cancer cells in a lab dish, inject them into mice, attack the resulting tumors with the experimental drug du jour and see what happens. But there is a world of difference between humans and animals in their metabolism, biochemistry, physiology, genetic makeup and gene expression, so what happens to mice doesn’t necessarily happen to people.
“Animals don’t reflect the reality of cancer in humans,” says Fran Visco, a breast cancer survivor and founder of the advocacy group National Breast Cancer Coalition. “We cure cancer in animals all the time, but not in people.”
Much of this research misses the mark entirely. As a recent article in Newsweek reported, we now know that metastatic cells—rogue cells that break off from the original cancer tumor and make their way to other parts of the body—cause 90 percent of all cancer deaths. Yet the human tumors that researchers transplant into mice almost never metastasize. Still, many researchers continue to pin their hopes on animal models.
Meanwhile, as we spend billions of dollars to cure cancer in mice, we are missing opportunities that could help real people in the real world—such as making breast cancer treatment more accessible to low-income women, educating consumers about the role that diet plays in cancer prevention and pairing scientists with women volunteers who are willing to participate in breast cancer research (the goal of the innovative Love/Avon Army of Women). And new technologies that could truly benefit sick patients—like a three-dimensional model of human breast cancer recently developed by British scientists, made by growing cells from normal and cancerous breast tissue—remain the exception.
This October, we don’t need more pink ribbons or pink T-shirts—or mice with breast cancer. We need a commitment to funding programs that will result in true medical progress, including patient services for poor families, education and vital research that does not rely on outdated animal models. Pretending that experimenting on animals holds the key to curing breast cancer in humans is pink-washing of the worst kind.
Kathy Guillermo is director of the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.StopAnimalTests.com.