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May 14, 2017

Suzanne Fenton discusses the effects of early life chemical exposure

Mayank Mishra/Collegian)

(Mayank Mishra/Collegian)

Suzanne Fenton was the guest speaker for the Center for Research on Families’ Tay Gavin Erickson Lecture Series on Tuesday at the Commonwealth Honors College. Fenton gave a lecture about her research, which covers the outcomes early life chemical exposure has on female puberty and the development of breast cancer.

According to Fenton, in 2012 alone, 1.7 million women were diagnosed with the disease and at least 25 percent of cancers diagnosed in many countries are breast cancer.

“One of the problems is that there is a real diversity in how women respond to environmental factors,” she explained.

Fenton said a Scandinavian study had found that 90 percent of the determining factors for whether someone developed breast cancer were environmental and 10 percent were genetic.

Her work examines the chemical and environmental factors that can affect the risk of breast cancer including puberty timing, breast density and obesity. She said it can be hard to pinpoint environmental causes because not all girls or young women have identical environmental exposures.

She added that the way she approaches her research had been changed by events in her personal life.

“I am the mother of a daughter who went through early puberty,” she said. “It kind of changes your work ethic, why you get out of bed in the morning.”

Fenton has continued to research mammary gland growth, which can be a determinant in the development of breast cancer, in the prenatal, pubescent and pregnancy periods of life.

“Understanding that there are these critical periods of development has been very important, it has kind of changed the field,” Fenton continued.

Because Fenton and her team’s work and results have yet to be published, her data cannot be shared with the public.

Laura Vandenberg, a member of the University of Massachusetts’ environmental health sciences department, gave the introduction for Fenton’s lecture.

“The hats that she wears, each one of them are things that I think young scientists could look to her and learn from and hope to be like,” said Vandenberg.

Audience members of the lecture gave positive feedback after Fenton had finished presenting. Haydee Jacobs, a departmental assistant studying public health, works in a developmental toxicology lab on campus.

“This is really important, where we have audience members from all sorts of different things, it’s important that people are kind of aware of the same work we are studying constantly,” Jacobs answered.

“I thought it was really inspirational and needed for students and faculty to hear such a well-rounded and knowledgeable person,” added Durga Kolla, a senior public health and neuroscience student.

As for why the public does not have more answers when it comes to the biology of breast cancer, Fenton blamed it on a lack of communication between developmental biologists, pathologists, epidemiologists and breast cancer advocates.

“The funding for the general understanding of this is not being funded. Basic biology of cancers is not a hot topic for funding right now,” concluded Fenton.

Fenton is currently working for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the mammary gland development and lactation biology fields.

Mary Yates can be reached at Stuart Foster contributed to this story and can be reached at or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.

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