Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Breasts: A natural and Unnatural History

Breasts: Why do we have them?
             Why do men like them?
             Why do babies like them?
             What size do babies like? What size do men like?
             What state is the home of the boob job?

Curiosities in the book:
1. The inventor of the Barbie doll was a breast cancer patient, she designed and promoted some of the first prosthesis for masectomy patients. Hmm, this from the inventor of a doll that has "proportions
that only one in 100,000 women ..compared to Ken's bod, which is found in one in 50 men." (as determined by the researchers at the University of South Australia)
2. Babies only need a breast the size of "half an eggshell."
3. Between 5-10 MILLION women are walking around with
breast implants.
4. Breast milk has "endocannabinoids" in it "note the root CANNABIS in there. These substances which cause the munchies, probably play a role in enticing infants to eat...but make the infant feel full... formula lacks these compounds, and formula fed babies have
a notoriously higher caloric intake...why we have a childhood
obesity epidemic."

Breasts, boobs, boobies. Whatever you want to call them, we all have them. Women have more pronounced ones that provide a vital function: feeding our young. No matter how pronounced yours are, you probably love someone with developed functional breasts. This book is not just about the disease of the breast which is becoming all too common. It is an uplifting (hah!), eye-opening, and at times humorous look at breasts. It also is an alarming account of the interplay between the environment and humans, who are mammals (no matter how technological or cerebral we may be.)

Ironically it may be male breasts that answer the question: what chemicals cause cancer? A cluster of men plagued with breast cancer has been found in Camp Lejeune, home of the Marine Corps. Former marines, and sons of marines are coming down with breast cancer (rare in men). "The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten" is a website for such men that tracks the progress of the investigation into the contaminated drinking water which they drank while in service to their country (or while their fathers were serving.) The author of the book discusses the chemicals that contaminated two of the wells that provided "the most contaminated public drinking supply ever discovered in the United States." (Williams, p. 463) The picture of the proud shirtless marine saluting while sporting a masectomy is heart wrenching. (Williams, p. 458) More on the plight of these men can be found at the afore mentioned website:

"At its heart, Breasts is an environmental history of a body part. It is the story of how are breasts went from being honed by the environment to being harmed by it. It is part biology, part anthropology, and part medical journalism...the book's publication marks the fiftieth anniversary...of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas, in a woman who really just wanted and ear tuck." (Williams, 127-8) Silicone was an industrial compound for lubricating machinery and insulating air craft engines. After WWII in "American occupied Japan, another, less orthodox use was found for silicone. Drums of the stuff, needed for cooling transformers went turned up in the breasts of Japanese prostitutes" (Williams, 130) Injecting it randomly into the breast was a bad idea as it hardened like the caulk it was. In 1962 a woman wanting an ear tuck received the first silicone (in a bag) boob job in exchange for volunteering. More cosmetic boob jobs are still performed in Texas than anywhere else in the US!

Of particular note is the function of breasts. (No, they are not just about attracting men...for which numerous studies cited prove they are quite effective in this task.) Breast feeding provides infants with many nutrients that formula can not even begin to duplicate. An incredibly responsive organ,a woman's mammary glands even cater to the age, size, and sex of her infant in formulating the milk. It is amazing that antibodies produced by the mother protect the infant. Having provided two infants with this food I was particularly delighted at the health benefits that breast fed infants receive. I was less thrilled to learn that "mothers who breast-feed for a year also siphon off to their infants 90% of PFCs" that were absorbed from Scotchguard, Teflon....and dioxins, and PCBs....Dolphins have it particularly bad and their first born bear a particularly hard burden of inheritance. Even polar bears, as isolated as they are, are not immune and are passing along such carcinogens to their young. (Apparently, non breast fed kids catch up in exposure levels within two years so I can stop feeling guilty, but no less worried about the environment around us.)

The author is fair and balanced and reminds the reader that although the breast functions as a "sentinel" organ highlighting the damage done to the environment, and by the environment that this is a long term problem. Over half the world has the emergent short term problem of a lack of clean drinking water resulting in a huge number of children not living past the age of five. Toxins may lead to death long term, but pathogens lead to a much sooner demise. It does put things in perspective, but after reading this book you won't look at your sofa cushions or your water bottle in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

I was mesmerized by this biography of a woman who has touched most of our modern lives, Henrietta Lacks. If you have ever used a cosmetic or taken a medication you are probably indebted to this woman who died a tragic death at the age of just thirty-one. Cells taken from her cancerous tumor were the ones used to determine the most basic essence of human life, the number of chromosomes in our DNA chains.

Taken as part of a biopsy, before informed consent, Henrietta Lacks' cells populate so many laboratories that "one scientist estimates that if you could pile all Hela (the acronym for her cells)cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons-an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing." (Skloot, p. 21) Most cells in culture grew across a glass surface, slowly. She unknowingly participated in a study on cervical cancer headed by Richard Telinde..."like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects, as a form of payment." (Skloot, p. 49) Henrietta Lack's cancerous cells grew in suspension stupendously well and would be the basis for mass production of human cell cultures.

Her cells' influence on the eradication of polio, and treatment of disease and production of medications is awesome and extensive and makes interesting reading. Her biographer details these contributions while concurrently describing Henrietta's children's lack of access to medical care. Medical care that today was hugely benefited by their mother's tragic disease and death.

Henrietta's cells helped bring "informed consent" to US health care, but not until the 1960s. A cancer researcher had been directing the injection of her cancerous cells into unknowing patients (causing malignancies so that he could measure their growth rate) for over a decade before three young Jewish doctors refused to inject these cells into twenty-two patients at the Jewish Chronic disease clinic in Brooklyn...scarily similar to the actions of Nazi doctors just sixteen years earlier.(Skloots, p. 157)  It wasn't until late in the 1960s before this prompted the National Institute of Health to require that for a study to qualify for funding-- the study had to be approved by "independent bodies made up of professionals and lapeople of diverse races, classes, and backgrounds...including detailed informed consent." (Skloot, p. 162) Shockingly, it was such a common practice that the researching physician received just a one year "probation" on his medical license!

Various case studies of companies profiting hugely from unknowing patients provides fodder for thought on the ethical, moral and legal ramifications of the tissue samples we so readily provide at our doctor's office. One recent abuse, cited in the book, was a hospital collecting placenta samples routinely at deliveries so that if they were sued for malpractice they could defend themselves on the grounds it was a genetic condition instead. A thought provoking read in an increasingly litigious society.