Recently Fran Drescher decided to kvetch about breast feeding (here’s a good link for the full quote http://www.shalomlife.com/culture/17974/fran-drescher-breastfeeding-poisons-babies/). The bottom line is that Drescher, best known for her character on the TV show “The Nanny”, says that breast feeding causes your child to get CANCER!!! (I think CANCER should be written in all caps because that’s how most people read the word anyway). Let’s leave aside for the moment that in her show her character really wasn’t much of a nanny (she spent a lot more time “taking care” of Mr.Sheffield than his kids) I think that when someone says something like this it deserves a little attention, I mean no one wants to give their child CANCER do they? So, why does nanny Fran say breastfeeding causes CANCER? She claims it’s because breast milk contains high concentrations of fire retardant, let’s just let that sink in for a minute.
Done mulling it over? Good!
Allow me to unpack for you my dear reader this giant whopping, steaming pile of ………. ahem, fuzzy logic. The fire retardant she is speaking of are commonly called PBDE’s and they are an industrial chemical used mostly in manufactured products for homes and vehicles. They are an object of public health concern because their long-term effects are largely untested (please note my use of the word “untested”, that will be important later). The purpose of PBDE’s is to help prevent things from igniting into flames when exposed to sufficient heat or a source of fire; in this capacity PBDE’s are estimated to save thousands of lives in North America every year (if you’re curious, saving lives = good thing). PBDE’s are an industrial chemical so they should be a valid object of public concern, but how do we get from there to breastfeeding causes CANCER? Well’ you see, nanny Fran seems to think that our exposure to these chemicals is causing CANCER, in fact she implies that these are responsible for the rising CANCER rate in North America! She also claims that because of this women’s breast milk has become super-concentrated CANCERjuice! (all right, maybe I’m paraphrasing her on that)
“Wait!” you say, making a skeptical face “nanny Fran is saying this?”
Yes she is. What makes her such an expert you might ask; That’s a very good question. Fran Drescher is a bona fide CANCER survivor, she beat uterine CANCER a few years back. I am the last person to say CANCER is no big deal, I have friends and family who are CANCER survivors and a few that were CANCER victims, CANCER is an awful disease and well worth avoiding if possible. I will say, however, that there is a substantial and important difference between “CANCER survivor” and “CANCER expert”! The latter goes by the terms ‘Oncologist’ and ‘doctor’ while the former goes by ‘poor sap’ and ‘lucky one’ depending on where they are in treatment. The fact is, surviving CANCER makes a person only slightly more knowledgeable about CANCER than the average schmuck.
Do PBDE’s cause CANCER? Maybe. We don’t really know because their long term effects remain untested (there’s that word again). Would I recommend drinking a few litres of them? Probably not. Would I recommend getting rid of them? Also no. They do prevent HORRIBLE, PAINFUL DEATH BY FIRE (I thought that should probably be in all caps as well) in some cases and a lot of fire related property damage and insurance claims as well. What I might suggest is to get a few experts to actually TEST these chemicals before some actress who played a substandard TV nanny who has no medical designation starts throwing around the word CANCER to scare impressionable mothers into not breastfeeding their babies.
This really is my point: I doubt very much that nanny Fran has done any of the years of medical training, the double blind medical studies, the decades of research, and the extensive peer review that would actually be required to be an expert on the impact of PBDE’s on CANCER rates OR the concentration ratios of blood chemicals found in human breastmilk and the associated implications. Still, she didn’t let that stop her from opening her mouth and letting CANCER paranoia spill out! You know what is really bad for your health? Having a radical hysterectomy! So why did nanny Fran do that? Obviously because, under the considered medical advice of her physician, she needed to in order to treat her CANCER. No one in their right mind would ever suggest amputation, invasive surgery, or extensive chemotherapy without good reason, all of those treatments are terrible for you; yet, in many cases these treatments are necessary to prevent someone from dying of CANCER and it’s really important that that person gets advice from someone who knows what is the best way to treat their CANCER. Who would you trust? Your doctor, or the nanny?
This is yet another good example of Doc Hollywood being irresponsible for no good reason. Here is a statement that every celebrity should have painted on their mirrors and front doors to remind them before they go out into the real world: “Just because a lot of people are interested in what you think does not make the quality of your thoughts any better!”. When Tom Cruise says postpartum depression doesn’t exist it’s not because he knows something you don’t; it’s because he’s just as dumb as the average person and, in that case, extraordinarily dumber.
I’m not here bashing celebrities either, everyone has blind spots, I’ve said some really stupid things in my time. The main difference between Tom Cruise or Fran Drescher and myself is that when I say something that is bat-crap crazy or pure stupid from concentrate, I don’t do it in front of six million viewers on Oprah! Also, I have a great variety of people around me who will tell me, lovingly, “dude, what you just said was both stupid and offensive, what is wrong with you?” ( in fact, before I post this blog my wife will read it over, as she does with all of my posts, to give me a few second thoughts). Celebrities don’t get the same consideration. What most celebrities end up with is some nebbish interviewer who wipes off all the stupid and/or crazy that has just been vomited all over his face long enough to nod and say “thank you Madonna, please continue” before closing his eyes and mouth for a fresh onslaught because, hey, it’s just his job to ask the questions and no one cares what he thinks. This is the bubble that celebrities live in and it’s pretty hard to resist the temptation of believing you actually are smarter just because your opinion seems to matter to people and that you are right all the time just because no one chooses to point out exactly how stupid or wrong you are.
In the end, a misinformed or under informed celebrity can do a great deal of damage by getting in front of a camera and opening up their crazyhole. We tend to believe what celebrities say for bad reasons. Everyone has a weakness for judging everyone else for their best days and themselves for their worst; when we see a celebrity telling us something our brains tell us “They must know what they’re talking about, after all, they’re on TV! We’ve never been on TV, they must only let the really smart people -like Oprah- be on TV!”. Fran Drescher stands up and tells new moms that their breast milk is CANCERjuice and people are just a little bit more likely to think she knows what she’s talking about. Why is that? When we stop to think about it none of us really knows why, we just sort of … I don’t know … trust her opinion? Well I for one would like to ask nanny Fran and the rest of the collective “Doc Hollywood” to kindly shut up! Being a new parent is hard enough without you slopping your ill informed issues and ridiculous prejudices all over the rest of us.
Allow me to take a moment to assuage your perfectly reasonable parental fears: There are a lot of things in our technologically advanced culture that we should be concerned about, let me assure you that breastfeeding is not one of them. The concentration of PBDE’s in the average person’s body is considered much too low for concern (the main exception is any person who does a lot of flying; the fact that commercial airliners have the highest concentrations of PBDE’s that you will come into contact with -for reason’s that are pretty obvious- coupled with the fact that the fuselage is a self-contained environment means that if you spend over two hundred hours on planes per year you may want to discuss some form of nutrition or therapeutic options with your doctor). Your child will come into contact with far more PBDE’s in his or her car seat (again, for pretty obvious reasons) and the car it’s in (obviously!) than your breast milk and even then the levels are not a matter of great concern (although I wouldn’t recommend letting them pull the foam out of the seats and eat it).
Here is an article from National Geographic on PDBE’s and other chemicals that is an informative starting point: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/chemicals-within-us/
One thing I will recommend (even though I’m not famous) is that the proliferation of chemicals in our environment definitely underscores the importance of a healthy diet with a lot of nutrient and antioxidant rich food, these are especially important for pregnant and nursing women. Supplementing could also be something to talk to a doctor about. The information that is out there is really hard to wade through, never be afraid to ask an expert, they’re a lot more helpful than celebrities. As always, La Leche League international (http://www.llli.org/) offers a lot of support and resources for breastfeeding parents, I recommend them as a good starting point for any concerns you might have. Good luck and happy breastfeeding!