The Meaning of Prevention
Prevention of breast cancer is the paramount goal of most people involved in breast cancer work — from activists, to doctors, to research scientists. There is far less agreement, however, about how to achieve that goal. For many people in the medical and scientific community, the answer lies in finding pills that will protect people against the disease. While "pills for prevention", or chemoprevention, may reduce an individual's chances of developing breast cancer, it ignores a primary prevention strategy that would protect us all by addressing the causes of breast cancer, particularly the environmental links to the disease. For Breast Cancer Action Montreal and many women's health activists, the acceptable approach to breast cancer prevention lies in putting the public's health before private profit, which involves finding and eradicating the causes of breast cancer instead of medicating healthy women. It also involves advocating for public policies that assure that the burden of proof about a substance's safety lies with the manufacturer rather than with the public.
The Precautionary Principle, which the medical profession understands as "first, do no harm," calls for shifting the burden of proof of harm caused by environmental contaminants from the people who are exposed, to the industries that develop the materials. It focuses on fundamental changes in public policy that will ultimately be necessary to achieve true cancer prevention, and stands in stark contrast to the "pills for prevention" approach, which feeds the public's desire for simple solutions to complex problems like breast cancer. The Precautionary Principle, in contrast, requires educating the public about a different and more fundamental approach to public health issues like breast cancer.
The focus of breast cancer research must move beyond its current emphasis on treatment to also embrace a serious search for the causes of the disease and its prevention. BCAM supports the adoption of the Precautionary Principle as the guideline for action and research and imagines a world that abides by this principle, prioritizing research into the causes of breast cancer and hastening the day when we will be able to prevent this terrible disease.