On Cancer’s Trail

The women in Stefanie Raymond-Whish's family have a history of breast cancer. Now the young Navajo biologist is asking why.

  • A dividing breast cancer cell as seen through a colored scanning electron micrograph.

    Steve G Schmeissner/Science Photo Library
  • Stefanie Raymond-Whish in her Flagstaff lab holds a container holding breast tissue in a nutrient solution. The beaker of yellow fluid is uranium in a solution.

    Sam Minkler
  • Windmills and water tanks like this dot the Navajo reservation. Some are contaminated with high levels of uranium and are marked "For livestock use only." This one doesn't have a warning sign.

    Sam Minkler
  • Cheryl Dyer at NAU says early researchers working with atomic elements failed to understand some of the effects of uranium.

    Sam Minkler
  • Milton Martinez at an abandoned uranium mine near Haystack Mountain on the eastern edge of the Navajo Reservation. A relative of Paddy Martinez who helped get the uranium boom started here in the 1950s, Martinez grew up playing in mines like this and in the surrounding tailings.

    Sam Minkler
  • The sign on the gate of the Church Rock Superfund site says "Danger, No Trespassing," in Navajo and English.

    Sam Minkler
  • The Rare Metals mill near the Navajo town of Tuba City and the Hopi village of Moenkopi once processed uranium ore. Now, the site is part of the Department of Energy's uranium mill tailings cleanup program. But other areas nearby, such as the old town dump, are also contaminated and are not part of the cleanup program. Dozens of sites like this are scattered across the Navajo Nation and the Colorado Plateau.

    Sam Minkler
  • Lab rat similar to those used for research.

    National Institutes of Health

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The lab's discoveries have already demolished the conventional wisdom on the properties of uranium. Not only does the heavy metal appear to alter mammary cells at very low doses, but it also seems to interfere with normal hormonal signals. Sometimes the uranium follows the same pathways as estrogen, but sometimes it doesn't, which means it's triggering other endocrine responses as well. "We don't yet know the mechanism of how uranium is affecting these cells," Raymond-Whish says, "but we do know an estrogen receptor is involved. We see it in both animals and MCF-7 cells."

Although the work in Raymond-Whish's lab is considered pure research science, it is impossible to sift it from the real-world context of her family, her culture and her beliefs. Breast, uterine and ovarian cancers have risen steeply in Indian country since the advent of uranium mining. Having watched her grandmother and mother suffer, and now with two kids of her own, 14 and 4 years old, Raymond-Whish can't help but wonder if she's next in line.

But while Raymond-Whish's intimate acquaintance with cancer may harm her credibility as a dispassionate scientist, it may also propel her to help make startling discoveries where no one else has thought to look.

The lab's investigation started several years ago, when Northern Arizona University became part of a team that received a five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute. The project is designed to address community health care, so the local Navajo elders had a few suggestions. They told the scientists they wanted to know more about the health effects of uranium pollution.

"So I started adding uranium to the drinking water of my lab animals," recalls physiologist Cheryl Dyer, who was Raymond-Whish's faculty advisor at the time. "And because I'm an ovarian physiologist, I wanted to see what happened in the ovary." Uranium has long been known to be radioactive and toxic, but no one had ever looked at its effects on follicle counts, or the number of "pre" eggs - eggs in the ovary that have not yet been released for fertilization. Dyer and Raymond-Whish found that the number of pre-eggs declined with low exposure to uranium, and that the mice developed heavier-than-normal uteruses. Normally, a toxic chemical will cause an organ such as a kidney to shrink, not expand. "I said, 'Whoa, what is going on here?' " says Dyer. "I started to wonder if there were other heavy metals that cause these changes, and it turns out cadmium does the same thing. That's when a light bulb went off in my head. Cadmium is an estrogen mimic." All those decades of lab work with atomic elements, and "they had completely missed the boat on estrogen mimicry."

Raymond-Whish was the lead author of a paper showing the unexpected effects of uranium on mouse follicle counts, uterine weights and accelerated puberty. "Drinking Water with Uranium below U.S. EPA Water Standard Causes Estrogen Receptor Dependent Responses in Female Mice" was published in December in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal put out by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. Raymond-Whish concluded that uranium acts as an estrogen, and she recommended that Navajo girls and women be followed closely for reproductive cancers. In conversation, Dyer makes her opinion clear: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should lower its drinking water standard for uranium from 30 micrograms per liter to 20 micrograms, the Canadian standard. But Dyer and Raymond-Whish are tip-toeing out on a treacherous scientific limb by suggesting policy changes that are based on controversial data.

Raymond-Whish's work and its results have landed her in the middle of a scientific and regulatory quagmire. It's one thing to regulate a chemical known to be toxic at high doses; it's entirely another to suggest regulating minute levels of a substance that is readily found across a large swath of the American West. Many communities, not just those on the reservation, are affected by uranium. Recent tests in Colorado, for example, revealed that 37 cities and towns in the state depend on drinking water that exceeds federal levels for uranium and its daughter nuclides.


Uranium is not just an emotional issue for Raymond-Whish, but for the tribe as a whole. The legacy of mining the element on the 27,000-square-mile reservation is so deeply and collectively felt that the Navajo Nation banned it altogether in 2005 in the face of globally rising ore prices. During the '40s and the Cold War period, the U.S. government used yellow cake - or milled and concentrated uranium ore - to build nuclear weapons. The government stopped buying the ore for weapons in 1971, but the commercial nuclear energy market picked up the slack until the early 1980s. Only about a quarter of all U.S. uranium miners were Native American - Laguna, Hopi, Zuni and Ute as well as Navajo. But Native Americans have been disproportionately affected: Their tribal lands are still contaminated, and former miners suffer illnesses and deaths for which many families are still awaiting compensation.

Despite the tribal ban, at least five companies are seeking state permits in New Mexico to mine lands just off the reservation, including on tribal allotment land. In Arizona, 700 individual mining claims were filed in 2005. The prehistoric sea and river beds that run underground from Naturita, Colo., to Grants, N.M., and across to Moab, Utah, still hold an estimated 600 million pounds of low-grade ore. But for every 4 pounds of uranium extracted, 996 pounds of slightly radioactive waste is left over, in piles, in pits and eventually in the soil, arroyos and underground aquifers.

May 27, 2008 11:46 AM

The high rate of breast cancer couldnt possibly have any relation to the high rate of morbid obesity also found in this same population. No , that would mean that the patients were somehow, at least in part, responsible for their diseases. We can't have that non PC scientific nonsense can we.


May 29, 2008 01:34 PM

Of course, every valid epidemiological study includes obesity as an explanatory factor.  

Of course, any other explanatory factor must exhibit an effect statistically beyond the obesity effect. 


Of course, we have no shortage of obese individuals in every racial group and every region so correcting for this effect is no problem. 


Criticism of a study is completely invalid if you are too lazy to try to understand the methods used.   


It takes work and common sense to understand these things.  

If "Anonymous 05/26/2008 @02:33:02" only wants to sit on his lazy butt and throw out racist smears hiding behind an anonymous skirt, then I suppose understanding and truth are not the point.

Jun 09, 2008 08:06 PM

In a post at Gristmill today, Dave Roberts took John McCAin to task for the following:

"McCain was more gung-ho about nuclear power and expanded domesticdrilling for oil and natural gas. When a donor in Richmond summed uphis advice as, "nuclear, and drill wherever we've got it," McCainresponded: "You just gave my speech. Thank you, my friend." 

In Comment# 1, I suggested that he first go talk to Raymond-Whish or, better yet, to Sandoval. Then, he should come back and explain why women's lives are so cheap, why Indians are still expendable and what he is going to do about rising health care costs.

That is not too harsh when directed at a Senator who proudly recorded robo-calls on behalf of the Taker in Chief, Richard Pombo, for the 2006 election.  

Raymond-Whish On Cancer's Trail
Daniel Samek
Daniel Samek
Apr 05, 2010 04:39 PM
Fascinating Stuff!!!