Don’t get donation fatigue. A cure for breast cancer is closer than ever before.
This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Yes, yes, we know you might feel you’ve had your fill of themed charity months – but this one’s a biggie. This one could save your life. It’s a disease most of us have been touched by. Someone you love may have had it, you may have yourself, because it’s still the most common cancer hitting women worldwide, with an unsettling one in eight of us predicted to get it in our lifetime. Currently, around 11,400 people die each year from breast cancer in the UK, according to the charity Breast Cancer Care.
Inspired by the campaigning work done around Aids and the effect it had, the awareness month was started by Evelyn H Lauder, senior corporate vice president of Estée Lauder in 1991, after she had her own cancer scare. “The pink ribbon movement started as an expression of solidarity: survivors wearing ribbons to identify themselves,” says Rachel McLachlan, associate director of Firetail, a strategy company that works with charities. The result? “Knowledge of spotting early signs and symptoms has improved, more women are being screened and survival rates are going up.”
As well as raising vital awareness, The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Campaign has since raised more than $76 million globally, with $62 million going to 250 Breast Cancer Foundation medical research grants. Because of this: the chances are good that we will find a cure for breast cancer in the next 10 years. “When I started as a doctor in the Seventies, the majority of breast cancer patients would die: only about 25% were cured,” says Professor Ian Smith, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, and Professor of Cancer Medicine at The Institute of Cancer Research. “Now about 75% are cured. I’m optimistic that within the next 10 years the vast majority of women will be cured.”
Read more: How it feels to survive breast cancer at 30
Mortality rates have decreased by 39% since the late Eighties and five-year survival rates are better than 90%, according to stats from the Breast Cancer Campaign. An estimated 691,000 UK patients are alive after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and that number is predicted to rise to 840,000 by 2020.
Currently the ‘standard treatment’ options involve surgery to remove lumps (which 81% of patients go through); chemotherapy (34% of patients); and radiotherapy (64% of patients). After this, about 85% of women have hormone therapy, to lower progesterone or oestrogen in the body, or block their effects. This course of drugs can last for years, and side effects can be harsh, with mood swings and depression, loss of libido and a risk of cancers elsewhere in the body.
Before now, doctors essentially had to guess which drug to prescribe and for how long. But Smith’s research could change that. He is part of one of the world’s biggest breast cancer treatment trials, involving 4,500 patients. Instead of immediate surgery, his patients are given anti-cancer drugs for two weeks before a second biopsy is taken to see if the cancer has responded. The research is still ongoing, but could be revolutionary.
What Lies Ahead
Since 2016, Imperial College London has been testing the prototype of an ‘intelligent’ knife, which can distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cells during surgery. It heats tissue as it cuts, and the smoke can be analysed. The iKnife reduces the chance of cancers being left behind to grow and has been licensed to pharmaceutical company Waters.
The University of Chicago is investigating how genetics and genomics (the study of genomes – an organism’s complete set of DNA) may be able to detect a variety of inherited cancers, including breast, in patients. Professor Tony Tiganis at the University of Melbourne, Australia, is working on research to attract more of the body’s immune system cells to cancerous breast tissue: their work focuses on an aggressive cancer, known as Triple Negative, that can currently only be treated with chemotherapy. This is still pioneering work, with methods being tested and or refined. Further funding means treatment options currently at the research stage will move more quickly into mainstream medicine, although the exact timeline is impossible to predict.
But there’s one area of research that has immediate benefits: the mental health of patients has been proven to play a key role.
Dame Lesley Fallowfield, Professor of Psycho-oncology at the University of Sussex says, “My team have been looking at how relaxing interventions during this stressful period – such as mindfulness, yoga, gentle exercise – can help the patients’ wellbeing, but also improve the effectiveness of their treatment as we know that cortisol [the stress hormone] can cause cancer cells to grow and also interfere with chemotherapy.”
Research, pioneering treatments, and awareness are giving better survival outcomes. Challenges remain, though: McLachlan says charities must address awareness and screening rates for Black and Minority Ethnic women, as statistics show that black women in England are almost twice as likely to suffer advanced breast cancer as white women.
But on the whole, we are better informed, thanks to campaigns and fundraisers. And charity bosses and scientists agree that it’s crucial to fund their work now. Tiganis was awarded a grant by Worldwide Cancer Research. Both Fallowfield and Smith get funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “It’s vital,” Smith says. “That money has allowed people to do all kinds of research that could not otherwise been done.”
It’s tempting to think that, since we’re so nearly there, we can ease up, leave the 5K sponsorships and donations to others. But, as Samia al Qadhi, Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care, says: “Breast Cancer Awareness Month is more important than ever.” Imagine there being just 10 more months needed for breast cancer fundraising. Imagine how much easier it will be to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis in 2028. It’s time to do your bit.
Photography: Dennis Pedersen