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How I Took Control of My Health After Having Breast Cancer at 26

Brynn Barale, now 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26. After not getting the answers she was seeking from her physicians about preventative measures she could take to ward off future bouts of cancer, the North Carolina resident began her own research into the role endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may have played in her disease.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before my 27th birthday. It was a complete shock because I was so young. As I started telling people about my diagnosis, everybody's response was, “But you're the healthiest person I know.” I had never thought of myself this way, and it made me wonder, “If I’m so healthy, then why did this happen to me?”

It was stage one, so I had a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tissue. I immediately started chemo, after which I had 33 radiation treatments. When that was finished, I joined a clinical trial for five years which basically put me into medically induced menopause. I did everything I could to heal myself with conventional medicine. If my oncologist suggested something and said, “This could reduce your risk by 2% of your cancer coming back,” I was like, “Sign me up. I'm doing it.” I said “yes” to everything because I was scared. 

I asked a lot of questions. One of the biggest ones was, “I'm 26. How long has this been there?” I was told that my cancer probably started forming five years earlier, which is the normal time frame between a tumor emerging and when most women actually feel the lump. My response was, “Whoa, so what did I do to my body by the time I was 21 years old to cause this?” I was told it was probably something environmental, but nobody wanted to help me explore the root of the issue beyond this vague answer. I had to do all the research on my own.

I received wonderful medical care, but there wasn’t a lot of dialogue about how I could take control of my health and minimize my future risk. To be honest, I think that was mostly due to my age. My team was more focused on the immediate issues, like getting me through chemo. But I was also concerned with living until I'm an old lady! I wanted help understanding what more I could do to reduce my chances of this happening again.

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Plastic, which commonly contains the hormone disruptor BPA, was one thing I brought up to my doctors. I asked them if I should stop doing things like heating plastic up in the microwave. Their response was, “Oh, yeah, sure,” but they also asked, “why are you even worried about that?” Next, I wondered if I should be drinking alcohol? Their response: “Oh, don't worry about it. It’s a quality-of-life issue.” I wanted to control whatever I could. If they told me I shouldn't be drinking alcohol or putting my plastic in the microwave, those were easy changes I could make while they handled all of the fancy stuff required to tackle my cancer.

I started to take a closer look at the things in my house, things like my water bottles, food storage containers, and pots and pans. I used to always drink out of plastic water bottles, so the first change I made was to switch to stainless steel or glass. I also traded plastic food storage containers for glass. I trashed my non-stick pans because they contain the chemical PFAS, which has been found to cause health problems, and now I use a cast-iron skillet for the majority of my cooking. 

The next step was to look at the food I purchased from the store. One year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop buying canned goods (tin cans often contain BPA); I now cook my own beans and buy tomatoes in glass containers. I scour ingredient lists to make sure everything I’m buying is free of parabens, a chemical that mimics estrogen and can disrupt your hormones.

My local health food grocery store was also helpful. I would pick up pamphlets there, and they would talk about different chemicals in your house and how to reduce them. I would then do my own research; finding resources like the Environmental Working Group blew my mind.

That’s also about the time when I realized that all the products you put on your body are also important. I now avoid BPAs, phthalates, sodium laurel sulfate (SLS), and artificial fragrances in my beauty and bath products. These changes didn’t happen overnight. I couldn't afford to just toss everything at once, but when a product I was using would run out, I would replace it with a better, cleaner option.

Cleaning up the chemicals in my life was something I did have control over. It was something I could do. Making these changes was empowering.

At times, this process was exhausting, but I am a very persistent person. I would go to my oncologists with a question about a chemical, and they would say, “Yeah, that could be linked to that.” But I didn't take that as the final answer. There’s still so much doctors are just beginning to understand about EDCs now, not to mention fifteen years ago, so I took control and did my own research to find products that I thought would be safer options, products that wouldn’t disrupt my natural hormones or interfere with my health far beyond cancer.

When I started my life-after-cancer journey in 2007, I had to scour labels. It was exhausting and I typically left the store defeated. Today, there has been a huge shift in consumer awareness, and now EDC information is often on the front of labels

Conventional medicine was necessary and worked to help me beat breast cancer. But I didn’t have a lot of control over most of that. It wasn't like I was getting to pick what flavor of chemo I was receiving. But cleaning up the chemicals in my life was something I did have control over. It was something I could do. Making these changes was empowering.

Fifteen years later, I now have a five and seven-year-old. When I was pregnant, I learned about how environmental exposure to things like EDCs can also affect your growing baby. I would like to think that, by being aware of EDCs and trying to avoid them both in my life and now in my children's lives, I have been able to lessen the amount of chemicals interfering with their natural hormones. 

I know I'm still going to be exposed to these chemicals—it’s impossible to completely eliminate them from our modern lives. But what I can do is control what is in my household as much as I can. Then, when certain things are out of my control, like ordering takeout that arrives in a styrofoam container, I try to let it go. I do the best I can.

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