23andme breast cancer risk screening

Home testing for breast cancer risks: coming soon?

We’re used to the idea of testing for pregnancy in the comfort of our own bathrooms, but would you be comfortable with testing your risk of breast cancer without consulting a surgeon?

That possibility may be with us sooner rather than later if news emanating from the USA is anything to go by: a test for genetic predisposition for breast cancer created by the genetic testing company 23andMe has been approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration. The company specialises in DNA tests for people who wish to investigate their ancestry: now they’re intending to use that information in order to screen for specific genetic mutations in your family tree that could act as a warning flag for potential breast cancer.

Scheduled to retail from the company’s website in the near future for $199, the test – as yet unnamed – will be a simple saliva test that the user will undertake and then send back to the company, based in California. “The test that we offer is a great way for those people to get access to the information directly without having to get a prescription,” says Emily Drabant Conley, the Vice-President of Business Development at 23andMe.

A very narrow scope so far

However, don’t start reaching for your debit card just yet: the new test will only screen for three possible breast cancer-related mutations of the thousands that exist – and even then, the initial test is only applicable for people of Ashkenazi (eastern Europe) Jewish extraction, which comprises three-quarters of the global Jewish community, has a worldwide population of roughly a million, and approximately a quarter of a million people in the UK (they also are the most prone to those three particular breast cancer mutations, and particularly at-risk for breast cancer in general).

And it’s this very limited coverage of testing which is worrying certain medical experts. “People will misunderstand and believe that because they test negatively, that is, they don’t test positive for any of the three breast cancer-related genes that are being tested by the company, that that means they have a clean bill of health,” says David Magnus, a medical ethics professor at Stanford University.

Pointing out that someone taking the test could easily have another one of the thousands of gene mutations that aren’t covered by the kit and assume they’re in the clear, Magnus also expressed reservations that medical professionals were being cut out of the equation. “For some people who might be getting this test, it also might be harder to really interpret and understand those results,” he said.

Will we be seeing home cancer testing in the UK soon?

We can see why people would be interested in a stay-at-home test, but it’s not as simple as that because genetic testing is complicated. At present, it’s used to detect predictive risks of breast cancer – a positive result means you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer but not that you are definitely going to develop it. A positive result means you can take proactive steps to manage this risk but, for some, this can mean you feel permanent anxiety about something that may never happen. For anyone contemplating this type of testing, genetic counselling is highly recommended.

breast cancer screening in the news

Are we getting blasé about cancer screening?

We’re always keen to promote good news, but three recent news stories have surfaced all at once which need to be discussed.

The first report: figures released by NHS Digital confirmed that the numbers of smear tests being carried out in the UK have reached a twenty-year low, having fallen across all age groups.

The second report: additional figures released by NHS Digital claiming that the proportion of women taking up breast screening has fallen to its lowest level in a decade.

The third report, and perhaps the most alarming of all: figures released by The Lancet claim that the UK is falling behind the rest of Europe in cancer survival rates and are migrating towards the lower end of the global league, leading to national health charities – who have been alerting the general public about this for years – upping their protests.

The Lancet study, which analysed the records and survival rates of 37.5 million patients with 18 of the most common cancers, revealed that while cancer survival rates had improved slightly in the UK over the past 20 years, other areas – including North America, Australasia and Scandinavia – have made far greater advances, and if this country had matched the European average, we could be preventing around 10,000 cancer-related deaths every year.

We’re falling behind

When it comes to breast cancer, the UK ranked 26th in the world out of 63 countries analysed, with a five-year survival rate of 85.6 per cent. In comparison, the survival rate is 89.5% in Australia and 90.2 per cent in the USA, while India has a 66.1 per cent survival rate – and worldwide, there has been a general increase in breast cancer survival rates.

While the UK has seen improvements in breast cancer treatment, due to an increase in funding, the overall proportion of GDP spent on healthcare in the UK is clearly lower than other countries. As Researcher Professor Michel Coleman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out; “We need to increase the spending on health services and stabilise the NHS rather than reorganising it every six months.”

It’s your responsibility to get checked out

However, there’s only so much the authorities can do – and no amount of organisation and expense can make a difference if the general public aren’t responding, and the drop in cancer testing in the UK is rather alarming. In the case of smear testing, experts are pointing out that this could be a combination of the spike in tests caused by the news reports over the death of Jade Goody in 2009 having long tailed off, combined with the success rate of the HPV vaccination. Other factors include a lack of sexual health services and a failure in local authorities to increase screening attendance.

In the case of breast cancer screenings, there hasn’t been a ‘Jade moment’ – but it’s a shame that there needs to be in order to encourage people to get checked out. One statistic that leaped out from the recent findings was that of all women with cancers detected through screening in 2016-17, 41.5 per cent had invasive but small cancers – which are less than 15mm in diameter and are usually too small to detect by hand. Our advice – don’t ignore those reminders from your local health authority.

vaping and breast cancer

Can vaping prevent breast cancer?

They’ve only been around for a decade, but the effects of the e-cig phenomenon can be seen on any high street. An estimated three million people in the UK are currently using e-cig technology, and the vast majority of them are former smokers.

Obviously, everyone knows of the link between smoking and cancer, but the general opinion amongst the public is that it’s more of a cause of lung cancer than breast cancer (as if that was a good thing). However, it’s been proven that smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. Not only that, but research has drawn a link between heavy passive smoking and an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Furthermore, if you’re recovering from breast cancer and still choose to smoke, you’re increasing the complications from your treatment, make it more difficult to heal effectively from surgery and breast reconstruction, and run a higher risk of contracting blood clots when taking hormonal therapy medicine.

So, can vaping help avoid breast cancer? And does reaching for an e-cig carry risks of its own?

No established link between vaping and cancer – so far

The first thing that needs to be said that – while vaping and research on vaping is still in its relative infancy – there is a general consensus amongst health experts in the UK that vaping and e-cigarettes are far safer than smoking tobacco. There’s a very good reason for that: e-cigs reproduce a smoking experience which eliminates everything from that experience, bar the nicotine – which is the one thing that smokers actually want.

Nicotine may be the ‘addictive’ element in cigarettes, but – in the small doses found in tobacco and e-cig liquid – it’s not the element in a cigarette which causes damage. There are roughly 5,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, of which at least 70 have the potential to cause cancer: meanwhile, the average batch of e-cig liquid will contain Vegetable Glycerin (which is widely used in food products and toothpaste, Propylene Glycol (which produces the ‘smoke’), flavourings, and nicotine. And that’s it.

As all e-liquid components are currently regulated by the EU Tobacco Product Directive, which was revised last year to accommodate the rise of e-cigs, you can be assured that any liquid you buy over the counter is safe to use.

It’s far safer than smoking

While news stories pop up with regularity making claims about the dangers of vaping, there is still an overwhelming amount of evidence to prove otherwise – as can be seen in this recent rebuttal to the claim that nicotine in vaping can cause cancer.

Bottom line: if you can’t do without a nicotine fix, stepping away from tobacco and moving towards an artificial replacement is a highly recommended.

weight and breast cancer risk

Losing weight can help reduce breast cancer risk, claims American report

Looking for any more inspiration for shifting the pounds put on over the festive period? Research from the US has produced a massively important fact: that losing weight can help women cut their breast cancer risk by up to a third.

The study, which was conducted by the Department of Medical Oncology and Therapeutics Research at City of Hope in California, and presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium last month, claimed that ‘modest’ weight loss significantly cuts the chances of developing breast cancer.

The link between excess weight and increased risk of cancer has been a subject of discussion amongst the medical community for years, and the picture appears to becoming clearer as time goes on. It’s accepted that excess weight raises the risk of breast cancer, due to fat cells producing hormones and proteins that are released into the bloodstream and carried around the body, which can increase the risk of several different types of cancer.

Not only that, but fat cells can also attract immune cells to body tissues, which release chemicals that cause long-lasting inflammation and can raise the risk of cancer. Whether or not these risks could be reduced by a healthy diet has been a bone of contention for years amongst the health industry.

Slim down your diet, beef up your chances of survival

The research tracked the health and weight of over 61,000 women aged between 50 and 79 for eleven years, and found that those who lost 5% of their weight saw their breast cancer risk fall by 12% – and the risk fell by 37% for postmenopausal women who slimmed down by 15%.

The findings have been welcomed across the board, with people like Baroness Delyth Morgan, the Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, claiming a potential breakthrough for cancer avoidance and long-term survival.

“This important study provides further, clear evidence that postmenopausal women can significantly reduce their breast cancer risk by taking steps to lose weight,” claimed Baroness Morgan. “Breast cancer risk increases with age. Being overweight after the menopause does increase your risk of the disease, likely because fat tissue becomes a women’s main source of oestrogen after the menopause. The less body fat you have, the lower your oestrogen levels, which can decrease your breast cancer risk.” she added.

Help defuse the obesity time bomb

As we know, obesity is a major problem in the UK, with 60% of British women being classified as overweight or obese, with the highest rates of obesity among those in middle age. Obesity has already been identified as the most important factor in developing breast cancer – more than even smoking and alcohol – by certain British studies, with post-menopausal women running the most risk.

The solution is obvious: move more, eat less – or at the least, eat more of the right things. And remember – a health regime isn’t just for January.

Dignicap for prevention of chemotherapy alopecia

The top cancer treatment breakthroughs of 2017

It’s fair to say that 2017 was a very good year in the field of cancer research, with a great many breakthroughs and developments – and now is as good a time as any to take a look back at what happened over the last year.

Palbociclib and Ribociclib finally approved by the NHS

After haggling over the price, the NHS finally gave 8,000 or so British cancer patients an extra edge in their battle by introducing two new treatments. Palbociclib – a first-line treatment for sufferers of oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer – has been medically proven to slow down the progression of cancer by inhibiting the proteins CDK 4 and 6. Ribociclib works along the same lines, but has been designed for women who have gone through the menopause.

Side-effects appear to be minimal: women who were involved in the trials for both medications reported that slight fatigue was the only negative, and they appear to be very manageable treatments, allowing users to live as high a quality of life as possible. And the British medical community are very keen to see both treatments rolled out, as they slow down the growth of tumours for nearly a year, delaying the need for chemotherapy.

The MammaPrint test: it could prevent unnecessary chemo

A report this summer from the University of California announced the development of a new test for cancer survivors, which can indicate which women are at a low risk for reoccurring cancers, allowing them to avoid unnecessary chemotherapy.

The MammaPrint test looks for up to seventy gene variants in blood and saliva which are known to increase the risk of cancers flaring up again, examining how active certain genes are, how the activity levels of the genes are affecting the behaviour of the cancer, and how likely it is to grow and spread. The result would allow doctors to factor in the age and general health of the patient, as well as the size and grade of the cancer, giving both doctor and patient a better shot at working out a more effective treatment plan.

The DigniCap cooling system

While chemotherapy is still seen by the medical community as the best weapon against cancer, the side-effects are still hard for many to bear – particularly the distress and trauma brought on by chemo-induced alopecia. However, a development approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration in 2017 could help keep hair intact.

The DigniCap Cooling System – a computer-controlled cap which circulates liquid that cools the scalp – is designed to minimise the hair loss brought on by chemo treatment for patients with solid tumours – was tested earlier this year, and studies of women with breast cancer who used the cap while undergoing chemotherapy demonstrated that more than 66% of them reported losing less than half of their hair.

AI used to detect breast cancer

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed a new and highly effective screening system for high-risk breast lesions this summer – using artificial intelligence.

The machine learning system was tested on 335 lesions, looking for patterns among data points including demographics, family history, biopsy results and pathology reports – and it correctly diagnosed 97% of them as malignant, reducing the number of unnecessary surgeries by more than 30%.

Because current cancer diagnostic tools are so inexact, the medical community has become prone to overscreening. And while techniques such as mammograms play a crucial role in detecting cancers, they still throw up a lot of false positives, leading to pointless surgeries.

While the American medical community feels that this is an important development, it may not be so crucial in the UK, as British medical policies are less inclined towards surgery than in the US. But the self-learning capabilities of AI mean that this system is predicted to come on in leaps and bounds in the near future.

breast cancer screening

Should overweight women be screened more often?

If you need a reason – another reason – to keep tabs on your weight, a recent study from Sweden has provided just that: according to the report, cancerous breast lumps are less likely to be detected in overweight or obese women before the tumour becomes large, sparking a call for more breast cancer screening in the form of frequent mammograms.

The study – carried out by the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm – involved 2,012 women who developed breast cancer between 2001 and 2008, who had been receiving mammograms every 18 months to two years – the standard length of time in Sweden. The researchers examined the size of the tumours at diagnosis, as well as the women’s body mass index (BMI), a measure of obesity.

The research team’s conclusions were that women who were overweight were more likely to have a larger tumour when detected either at their mammogram or between screenings, but the reason for this was wasn’t clear-cut. It may be because their breasts were larger – and therefore the tumour was harder to find – or because their weight gain had caused their tumours to grow at a faster rate.

The pros and cons of more breast cancer screening

As we know, larger tumours tend to carry a much higher danger, so the results of this research have serious consequences. However, the jury is still out on the need for a reduced length between breast screenings, with certain experts claiming that more evidence is needed.

Dr Fredrik Strand, the lead author of the study, claimed that the research proved a need for more screening. “Our study suggests that when a clinician presents the pros and cons of breast cancer screening to the patient, having high BMI should be an important ‘pro’ argument. In addition, our findings suggest that women with high BMI should consider shorter time intervals between screenings.”

However, Sophia Lowes, speaking on behalf of Cancer Research UK, pointed out that it wasn’t as simple as that. “Breast screening has harms as well as benefits,” she claimed, in an interview with BBC News. “It saves lives by helping detect breast cancer at an early stage, but harms include some women being diagnosed with a cancer that would never have caused them problems in their lifetime. The time between screening is designed to help the benefits outweigh the harms overall.”

The facts on fat and breast cancer

According to the World Health Organisation, roughly six out of ten women in Britain are classified as overweight or obese, and it’s becoming a problem for many reasons, as another study released this month makes clear. According to the study, which has been published in The Lancet, researchers at Imperial College London concluded that about 800,000 new cancer cases per year are caused by being overweight or diabetic – and overweight women are twice as likely to develop cancer as overweight men, with breast cancer being the most common incidence of cancer. So if you feel you’re carrying a bit too much weight, here’s your incentive to get your diet and exercise regime right for 2018.

Breast Cancer Drugs

Palbociclib and Ribociclib finally approved by the NHS

The big medical news of last month was the green-lighting by the NHS of two new drugs designed to treat advanced breast cancer, meaning that approximately 8,000 sufferers in the UK will be given an extra edge in their fight against the disease. After negotiating prices for the treatments – after feeling the initial pricings were too high – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) finally approved the use of palbociclib and ribociclib. But what are they?


Otherwise known as Ibrance, palbociclib is a first-line treatment for sufferers of oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer, which has been medically proven to slow down the progression of cancer by inhibiting two proteins – CDK 4 and 6.

They’re designed to be taken alongside an aromatase inhibitor, a hormone therapy which blocks the production of oestrogen, in order to stop certain breast cancers from developing.
It is estimated that palbociclib treatment can delay the progression of breast cancer by up to 10 months, allowing patients to continue day-to-day activities without the condition worsening. One cycle of palbociclib – a pack of 21 capsules, one taken daily – will cost the NHS £2,950.


Otherwise known as Kisqai, ribociclib works along the same lines as palbociclib – but is recommended for women who have gone through the menopause. It can be used in collaboration with letrozole, anastrosole or exemestane, giving oncologists a wider choice in selecting the therapy most suitable for a particular patient. Ribociclib is also a lot cheaper than palbociclib – that same £2,950 will buy the NHS 63 tablets.

Are there any side effects to these cancer drugs?

Women who were involved in the trail for both medications have reported that – bar slight fatigue – palbociclib and ribociclib are both very manageable treatments, allowing them to live as high a quality of life as possible. And the British medical community are very keen to see both treatments rolled out.

“(Palbociclib and Ribociclib) are one of the most important breakthroughs for women with advanced breast cancer in the last two decades,” claimed Nicholas Turner, professor of molecular oncology at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, and consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden, who led the clinical trials for the drugs.”

Professor Carole Longson, the director of the centre for health technology evaluation at NICE, was similarly impressed. “The committee heard that by postponing disease progression, palbociclib and ribociclib may reduce the number of people who are exposed to the often unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy, and delay the need for its use in others. We are pleased therefore that the companies have been able to agree reductions to the price of palbociclib and ribociclib to allow them to be made routinely available to people with this type of breast cancer.”

The final word goes to Professor Turner: “Palbociclib and ribociclib have made a huge difference to women’s lives – slowing down tumour growth for nearly a year, and delaying the need for chemotherapy with all its potentially debilitating side-effects. These drugs have allowed women to live a normal life for longer.”

hair dye and breast cancer

Hair dye and breast cancer: is there a link?

A recent study conducted by a London-based surgeon has attracted a lot of attention in the medical community, and caused alarm amongst anyone who has put a tint in their hair. According to the study, frequent hair-dyeing has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer – with an estimated 14 percent rise in the rates of contracting it.

The study, conducted by Professor Kefah Mokbel of the Princess Grace Hospital in Marylebone, advises that women dye their hair no more than two to five times a year – and also recommends using as many natural hair-dye products on their hair as possible, including henna, beetroot or rose hip.

“What I find concerning is the fact that the industry recommends women should dye their hair every four to six weeks,” Professor Mokbel pointed out. “Although further work is required to confirm our results, our findings suggest that exposure to hair dyes may contribute to breast cancer risk.”

Could hair dyes really cause cancer?

The short answer is: it’s complicated. Over 5,000 different chemicals have been used in hair dye products, some of which have been reported to cause cancer in animals (and subsequently eliminated from use). A combination of the huge array of ingredients, the constant changing of those ingredients in hair dye products and the large proportion of people – both male and female – who regularly dye their hair has caused no end of confusion for scientists looking for a link.

However, there have been studies that have drawn a link between hair product chemicals and an increased risk in cancer. A 2007 study claimed to detect an increased risk of bladder cancer in hairdressers and barbers, while a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that some of the chemicals these workers are exposed to occupationally are “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Furthermore, some studies have claimed there is a link between personal use of hair dyes and certain blood and bone marrow cancers, while others have denied that such a link exists.

While it is not known whether current hair dye products can cause cancer, the sheer numbers of people around the world that regularly use these products mean that any increase in risk – however small – would have a sizeable public health impact.

What can I do to reduce the risk?

It’s worth remembering that Professor Mokbel took great pains to make clear that the link is merely a correlation. “The positive association between the use of hair dyes and breast cancer risk does not represent evidence of a cause-effect relationship,” he wrote.

He also spelled out the following opinions on social media:

  • Women are advised to reduce exposure to synthetic hair dyes to 2-6 times per year and undergo regular breast screening from the age of 40
  • It would be preferable to choose hair dyes that contain the minimum concentration of aromatic amines such as PPD (less than 2%)
  • It is reasonable to assume that hair dyes that consist of natural herbal ingredients such as rose hip and rhubarb are safe
  • Further research is required to clarify the relationship between hair dyes and breast cancer risk in order to better inform women

For more information on potential risks of cancer or to arrange a private breast cancer diagnosis or treatment, call 0800 612 9490 or email us at

breast cancer detection

AI used to detect breast cancer in the US

We’ve heard a lot about the dangers of artificial intelligence and the negative impact it could have on our lives, but research from the US demonstrates that it could have seriously positive effects when it comes to breast cancer detection.

The research, conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and Massachusetts General Hospital, deployed AI through a machine learning system to predict whether breast lesions identified from a biopsy will turn out to cancerous.

The machine learning system was programmed to analyse information about breast lesions, forcing it to look for patterns among a range of data points, such as demographics, family history, biopsies and pathology reports. So far, it’s been tested on 335 high-risk lesions – and it correctly diagnosed 97% of them as malignant, which reduced the number of unnecessary surgeries by more than 30%.

False positives create fiscal negatives

Fifty-thousand women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year, but when cancers are found early enough they can often be cured. Mammograms can play a crucial role in detecting cancers early on, but the downside is that they also throw up false positives, such as ‘high-risk’ lesions that appear suspicious on mammograms and have abnormal cells when tested by needle biopsy.

Potentially, patients could undergo painful, expensive, scar-inducing surgeries to have lesions removed, even though they turn out to be benign 90% of the time.

“Because diagnostic tools are so inexact, there is an understandable tendency for doctors to over-screen for breast cancer,” claims Regina Barzilay, MIT’s Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science – who also happens to be a breast cancer survivor. “When there’s this much uncertainty in data, machine learning is exactly the tool that we need to improve detection and prevent over-treatment.”

Could AI breast cancer detection work over here?

According to Constance Lehman, professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Breast Imaging Division at MGH’s Department of Radiology, the results from the study have been very encouraging. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to apply machine learning to the task of distinguishing high-risk lesions that need surgery from those that don’t. We believe this could support women to make more informed decisions about their treatment, and that we could provide more targeted approaches to health care in general.”

However, it needs to be pointed out that this new technology may not travel well over the Atlantic. Debashis Ghosh – a consultant breast surgeon based at the Royal Free London hospital – stated that while the benefits of the technology were obvious, it may not be as effective over here. “Here we have less than 5% of patients who have these surgeries, whereas it is 30% in the US. We try to make a definite diagnosis before we operate but this technology is definitely useful where there is a lack of expertise.”

Obviously, we’re at the very beginning of the learning curve when it comes to AI as a diagnostic tool, so we await further developments with interest.

yoga and breast cancer treatment

Can yoga reduce the side-effects of breast cancer treatment?

We’re all aware of the beneficial effects of yoga: that it’s been clinically proven to reduce the risk of heart disease and hypertension, as well as having the ability to lessen symptoms of depression, headaches and diabetes. But is there anything in the idea that it can benefit cancer survivors, too?

A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania which was published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology and Physics last month seems to point towards a positive outcome. The study, which covered 68 sufferers of prostate cancer who were undergoing radiation therapy, split the participants into two groups: one which participated in twice-weekly yoga sessions, and one which didn’t.

Bend, but don’t break

After a 15-month period, the results were clear: the yoga participants started to report less fatigue than the non-yoga group after four to five weeks of activity, along with a greater ability to deal with the demands of day-to-day life. While the people behind the study have taken great pains to point out that the results are more of an emotional and physical bent than actually curing anything, it’s clear that something good is happening to people who partake in yoga.

But can yoga do anything for those who are fighting breast cancer? According to a 2014 study conducted by Ohio State University, there’s a lot to recommend the activity. Aware of the statistic that a third of breast cancer survivors complain that fatigue interferes with day-to-day activities, the study – which covered 200 breast cancer survivors of all ages – had a similar result: a lower level of fatigue and markers of inflammation in yoga participants compared to those who lived a more sedentary lifestyle.

How can yoga help?

There are three clear signifiers that have been pointed out by health experts:

  1. Yoga helps manage negativity: Research conducted in 2013 concluded that a yoga regime which incorporated yogic breathing was a vital aid to enriching the respiratory system, which in turn regulated nerves and instilled a feeling of calmness – something that is sorely needed by people who have had their lives disrupted and threatened by cancer.
  2. Yoga increases the production of endorphins: Just like any other form of exercise, yoga can jack up the production of endorphins – the mood-improving brain chemical which boosts our mood and keeps us feeling positive.
  3. Yoga can help cope with physical pain: Even a gentle exercise routine has been proven to reduce pain and stress, and entry-level yoga is the textbook definition of ‘gentle exercise’.

The other great thing about yoga is that it can be performed alone, but also as a group activity – and community support has been proven to be a huge aid to people in remission, whether you’re going it with fellow survivors or not.