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Double take: Pink and Green Ribbon campaign ties breast health to environment

01/27/2012 03:21 EST | Updated 03/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Julie Budgen turned pale when she first spotted the Pink Ribbon logo on packaging for chemical-laced household cleansers and candy spiked with artificial colours.

The ubiquitous symbol for breast cancer awareness was raising important research dollars, but in her view it came at the cost of promoting products jam-packed with known carcinogens.

Friends of the environmental consultant and biologist had the same reaction.

"If you're using these chemicals, you're absorbing them into your skin and that's going into your body," said the 37-year-old, recalling the experience seven years back. "We realized there's a disconnect between our bodies, the environment and cancer."

So they stitched up a twist to the popular movement and created the Pink and Green Ribbon campaign.

To create positive buzz, they got cheeky.

They fashioned temporary tattoos. They delivered a "boobs-shaped" cake to Oprah. A dance instructor choreographed the "healthy breasts dance," a high-energy routine that gets circulation flowing in the chest.

The grassroots initiative bloomed, and its Canmore, Alta.-based founders put efforts into cancer prevention through education.

Their two-pronged approach involves maintaining healthy breasts while raising awareness about environmental factors potentially related to disease. Other volunteer directors include a naturopath and a doula, and more advice comes from longtime naturopaths who specialize in breast health, Patricia Wales, based in Calgary, and Sat Kaur, based in Owen Sound, Ont.

Instead of harping on breast cancer, they harmonize about breast care.

"One word we coined was 'ta-boobs,'" Budgen said. "We talk about stuff that people might not be comfortable talking about. Like the 'breast jiggle' and getting women to actually touch their boobs and learning about breast massage."

To keep the momentum rolling, the campaign has launched a competition asking women aged 17 to 30 to submit creative four-minute or shorter videos that highlight pink-and-green values.

They're hoping the message goes viral.

Two scholarships of $1,000 each will be awarded for the best videos, and entries are encouraged from around the globe. Submissions will be posted on Twitter, Facebook and pinkandgreenribbon.com, the website that provides a library of resources illustrating strategies they believe any woman can use.

Developing a daily breast-care routine should be a top priority for women aiming to reduce their chance of developing breast cancer, Budgen said.

The group suggests women do regular breast self-exams, alternate water temperatures while in the shower to promote circulation and dry brush their skin towards the heart, which they believe helps the lymphatic system drain toxins.

They also encourage women to wear bras that allow their breasts to move a little and to perform the "breast jiggle," gently lifting breasts and moving them from side-to-side.

Carolyn Gotay, who specializes in cancer prevention at the University of British Columbia and is an affiliate scientist with the B.C. Cancer Agency, runs a prevention and risk-assessment clinic at the B.C. Women's Hospital in Vancouver.

She said upwards of 50 per cent of breast cancer diagnoses are preventable, with genetic factors accounting for only five to 10 per cent. However, she said a wide body of research points to making a different set of lifestyle choices than those espoused by the pink-and-green campaign when it comes to prevention.

The list includes managing obesity, a major risk factor for women after menopause; increasing physical activity; reducing alcohol consumption, because even a small amount of drinking can increase risk; recognizing the potential dangers linked to hormone replacement therapy; and engaging in breastfeeding, a protective factor for the mother.

Gotay said the connection between the physical environment and health — and cancer in particular — is "understudied," namely because it's so difficult to measure exposure.Science doesn't yet have the ability to trace people for a vast range of variables over lengthy time periods.

Studies that have attempted to find links between health and environmental factors haven't developed strong evidence, she said.

"Which doesn't mean they aren't there, it just means for the moment most scientists probably would say we don't know enough to really say that's where people should put their major emphasis," said Gotay. "We do know a lot about obesity and physical activity, and we know that explains a whole lot, so why not go where you get the biggest bang for your effort and energy?"

She said most cancer organizations around the world no longer recommend "routinized" breast self-exams, because they don't reduce mortality rates and lead to more unnecessary biopsies. Many agencies and organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, have publicly stated there is no credible scientific evidence that wearing a bra is a risk factor for cancer, she added.

Knowing your body and talking to your doctor about changes is important, she said, but science doesn't back up the campaign's other suggestions.

"You can do all the right things and you can still get breast cancer," Gotay said. "It can be very damaging if people feel that they've done all these things and they still get breast cancer and it's their fault — because it's not."

Budgen said the campaign's position is that not everything is as "cut and dried" as prevailing wisdom suggests.

"We're trying to help reduce fear so people feel confident in their bodies."

Whether following the natural practices of Eastern medicine or the established Western canon, Ayisha Remtulla believes women can proactively participate in their own health.

"Growing up, we learn simple things like how to take care of our teeth, what happens when you get your period," said Remtulla, an occupational therapist and campaign volunteer in Vancouver. "But we never learn how to take care of our breasts — that's the one thing nobody ever talks about."

The 29-year-old was close to three women who died from breast cancer. She knows another two who were treated and recovered.

"They were very strong, independent women," she said. "(But) they really just followed the traditional Western medicine route. They had never heard about any options."

Remtulla shaved her head last April to raise money for the campaign and to celebrate women's health.

"I wanted to make a statement," she said. "It's not about your hair or your boobs or how you look. I felt like it would create an opportunity for conversation ... about pink and green."

The campaign is paired with the Alberta-based Mary A. Tidlund Charitable Foundation and supported by the Rocky Mountain Soap Company. The deadline for scholarship applications is March 15, with videos due by April 2.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said studies show that wearing a bra is not a risk factor for breast cancer. This version has been updated.

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