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

Page 5

A few months ago, Raymond-Whish held a traditional Kinaalda ceremony for her daughter, Darby, to mark her passage into puberty. One of the most important Navajo rituals, it celebrates fertility, the natural order and harmony with the earth through song and prayer. Raymond-Whish's mother was there along with dozens of other relatives, and Dyer from the biology department at NAU also attended. For Raymond-Whish, it was a happy, soulful event, but shadowed by the uncomfortable realities of her career in cancer research. From now until late middle age, Darby will produce the large pulses of estrogen that have been linked to breast and other cancers in so many women. And natural harmony, as her mother knows, is not what it used to be, especially now that pollutants are acting like even more estrogen in our bodies. Raymond-Whish can only hope that Darby's cells have the normal number of receptors, and that her genes and her environment haven't somehow conspired to reprogram her development.

"What does artificial estrogen do to the breast?" she asks. "It depends on the time of exposure. If you look at cells of a younger individual who's not yet through puberty, and you expose them to uranium, then that could promote earlier onset of puberty, earlier breast budding. And if they're exposed in the womb, you could be changing the way the receptors are expressed through life."

In breast cancer research in general, there is a fundamental shift from large epidemiological studies that look at women's current lifestyles and exposures to an examination of what the women were exposed to as children. "Most epidemiology starts with the moment a tumor is diagnosed," said Irma Russo, a molecular biologist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "We need to look at when normal cells may have transformed many years earlier."

Suzanne Fenton, a research biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agrees. "We think one of the main drivers of breast cancer is what changes occurred in very early life to alter breast development. It's a fairly radical re-thinking."

Among other experiments, Raymond-Whish is exposing pregnant rats to uranium in order to track what happens in their offspring. When she tried this earlier with mice, the female pups exposed in the womb entered puberty approximately two days earlier, just as they did when exposed to DES. It's a subtle difference, but when combined with other real-life exposures, it may add up.

Explains Fenton: "It's important to remember that breast cancer risk is likely determined by a number of compounds interweaving with genetic factors and not just any one exposure."

Certainly, lifestyles on the reservation have changed in many ways over the past 50 years. "Once upon a time there was no diabetes here, no diverticulitis, no colon cancer," says physician Drouhard. "We are now exposed to the same things you are: plastics, fast food, obesity. Now everybody I know eats at Kentucky Fried Chicken." One way to learn more is by working with all those nose-twitching rodents in the lab. In the coming months, Raymond-Whish will repeat her experiments, prepare to publish again, and spend more time staring at the nauseating giant ovaries on the computer screen. The rats are euthanized before they actually get sick. Still, she says, they do have to offer up their organs to science. It's not easy for her to kill the animals. "Culturally, it's an issue," she says. "But I'm searching for something that's going to help somebody or even lots of people. I always say, 'Thank you for your life.' "

Florence Williams is a 2007-2008 Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado, where she is researching endocrine disruption and cancer. A former HCN staffer, she currently serves on the HCN board.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

A patient - Kathleen Tsosie, who has devoted her life to helping others, now faces the frightening possibility that her breast cancer has returned.

A well - Glenda Rangel and her family grew up drinking from and swimming in water tanks dangerously polluted with uranium.

An activist - Nellie Sandoval, the mother of scientist Stefanie Raymond-Whish, has become an outspoken activist as a result of her own struggle with breast cancer.

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!!!