Book Review — “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History”

Exhaustively researched and highly readable, science journalist Florence Williams’ latest book describes the remarkable and largely uncharted ecology of women’s breasts. Yes, ecology. It turns out that human breasts are in fact a complex and adaptable ecosystem, with a unique ability to tune in and respond to the world around them. Research has only recently begun to elucidate the implications of this ability.

Williams describes how, for generations, male researchers based virtually all of their studies about human breasts on the assumption that they developed primarily for sex appeal. When it occurred to scientists that the more essential purpose of breasts was to feed human infants, research into the biology, physiology and chemistry of lactation begin to yield more far-reaching — and sobering — results.

The adaptive marvel represented by breasts is a barometer for environmental pollution. Pesticides, plastics, and some of the chemicals used to manufacture them contain synthetic estrogens that interfere with human hormone levels and breast development. Women — and their breasts — absorb these substances on a daily basis from furniture, cars, computers, cellphones, and product packaging, even if we manage to avoid ingesting them in food and drink. The process of breast development in puberty is a particularly vulnerable one, making toxic exposures during adolescence particularly dangerous. Such exposures appear to have implications for how and why women may develop breast cancer in later life. Even so, new products in the United States may be manufactured and sold without ever testing them for the long-term effects of these pollutants.

When Williams had her own breast milk analyzed by a laboratory, she was shocked to find out how much flame-retardant, among other things, was present. When she and her seven-year-old daughter later submitted urine samples for toxicology analysis (before and after a three-day attempt to avoid as many potential chemicals and plastics as possible), the results underscored how ubiquitous pollutants are and how nearly impossible it is to avoid them.

Williams’ overriding message is an urgent call to action.The more we understand breasts, she argues, the more we realize that the task of curing and preventing breast cancer has reverberations that affect society as a whole.

Yet even when prevention is broadly defined to include breast cancer screening, Williams writes, “only 7 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) budget is spent on prevention” and the basic screening tool for breast cancer — mammography — has not changed in its essence in over half a century even though radiation is a known cause of cancer. The bulk of the NCI budget is spent on treatment research, yet the treatment of breast cancer still involves the old “slash, burn, and poison” protocol and the collateral damage that comes with it.

As the author discovered personally, lifestyle choices can only take us so far in the prevention of breast cancer. Until manufacturers make safer products, corporate farms produce foods that are free of toxins, and the assessment and regulation of chemicals is more rigorous, the unnatural history of the breast will keep us at risk.


Breasts — A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams. W.W.Norton, 2012. 352 pp. ISBN: 978-0393063189


Breast Cancer Consortium member Kathi Kolb is a long-time writer, artist and activist for women’s healthcare. She has worked as a physical therapist for 20 years, currently in home healthcare. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Her experience of the healthcare system as a cancer patient, and as a clinician, prompted her to start a blog called The Accidental Amazon. Kathi Kolb’s motivation  to speak out and question the status quo comes from her belief that, “change does not happen in silence.” She writes with gusto, soul-searching, analytical prowess and a commitment to evidence.

Be Sociable, Share!

Articles & Posts