breast cancer testing

Coming soon – a pee test for breast cancer?

A lot of us have been familiar with a take-home urine test when we suspect we’re pregnant – and some of us have undergone a urine test at work – but how would we feel about a pee test for breast cancer? Thanks to a medical company in Japan, that prospect could be a reality over the next decade.

The engineering and IT corporation Hitachi might be best known in the UK for their home electrical equipment, but in actual fact, they’re a highly diversified company with their fingers in many pies, including medical equipment. And now, two years after developing a prototype for the basic technology to detect breast and colon cancer from urine samples, they have announced a new round of tests with 250 new samples, in an attempt to see if batches at room temperature would be fit for analysis.

Breast cancer testing: quicker, more accurate, cheaper?

Unsurprisingly, Hitachi spokesperson Chiharu Odaira is very positive about this development, spelling out the benefits of this method of testing. “If this method is put to practical use, it will be a lot easier for people to get a cancer test, as there will be no need to go to a medical organisation for a blood test,” he said. Not only that, but it would be a boon in detecting paediatric cancers, pointing out that it would be especially beneficial in testing for needle-phobic kids.

As we know, the most common diagnostic method for the detection of breast cancer consists of a mammogram, which is followed by a biopsy if a risk is detected. Hitachi’s proposed method focuses on the detection of waste materials inside urine samples which act as a ‘biomarker’—in other words, a naturally occurring substance by which a particular disease can be identified.

Does it hold water?

If the new test – which commences in September, in collaboration with Nagoya University – goes well, it’s fair to say that this will have a massively positive effect on early detections and the saving of lives, not to mention a huge boost to social and medical budgets.

Remember: the earlier cancer is detected, the better chance a carrier has of surviving it, meaning that more than a few experts are getting very excited about this development. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is the first experiment of its kind in medical history, and urine-based cancer detection is, for want of a better word, essentially uncharted waters.

But when you combine this news with the report which was published earlier this year – about a new blood test which has ‘shown promise’ towards detecting eight different kinds of tumours before they spread elsewhere in the body – and it’s clear that we could be on the verge of a wave of breakthroughs in the field of cancer detection.

Hitachi claims that if their suspicions about the effectiveness of their urine test are correct a product will be rolled out over the next decade that would effectively be a huge step towards improved and earlier cancer detection.

radiotherapy study

Radiotherapy: is it time to lower the dose?

For thousands of women with breast cancer, radiotherapy is a necessary evil. As well as killing off cancer cells, it brings myriad side-effects, including fatigue, hair loss, diarrhoea and loss of appetite. Sometimes, when a high dose of radiation is deployed, the effects are severe.

However, a recent study claims that targeted treatments of radiotherapy – or even lower doses – were just as effective. The study, led by Cambridge University and London’s Institute of Cancer Research, claims that irradiating the tumour – rather than the whole breast – was just as good and came with fewer side-effects. Not only that but a second technique – bathing the whole breast with radiation but using a lower dose – was also equally effective and also reduced adverse effects.

Study into radiotherapy dosage and breast cancer

The trial involved over 1,200 women who were being treated at hospitals across the country. Half were given the usual high dose, while the other half underwent a lower dose, and were then monitored them for five years after treatment. Along the way, the subjects were questioned about adverse side-effects (such as a hardening of tissue, pain, over-sensitivity of the treated area and build-up of fluid) at the start of the study, after six months and one, two and five years after radiotherapy. Most of the side-effects reported alluded to changes affecting the breast: the most commonplace side-effect was an overall change in breast appearance.

The researchers discovered no difference in rates of cancer recurrence with the less aggressive approaches, and the patients in the lower-dose group reported significantly lower side-effects. Furthermore, it was discovered that women were more likely to report adverse side-effects if they were younger, had larger breasts, had a larger volume of breast tissue removed at surgery, if the cancer had spread to any of their lymph nodes, and if, at the start of the study, they were feeling anxious or depressed.

A reassuring development

“The findings from this study are reassuring for women who are offered either whole breast or partial breast radiotherapy using this technique of radiotherapy, which is simple to deliver and already available in centres worldwide,” claimed Dr Indrani Bhattacharya, a clinical research fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research. “This new information will help doctors discuss the risks and benefits of this type of radiotherapy with patients and may improve shared decision-making, as well as enabling them to tailor treatment for individual patients.”

As well as an interesting development in terms of how we treat breast cancer with radiotherapy, the study has also shed light on who is more likely to experience adverse side effects and can help practitioners identify these patients and then offer the necessary support.

mindfulness and coping with cancer

Could mindfulness help you cope with cancer?

There has been much coverage of the concept of mindfulness and its importance as a remedy for all manner of modern-day ailments. But what about when your entire life has been knocked out of kilter by a breast cancer diagnosis?

In a nutshell, mindfulness involves focusing upon what is occurring in the here and now: on the inside, on what’s running through your head, and what’s taking place around you. Essentially, it’s an attitude – a way of taking time out and zoning in on yourself, in order to put your everyday hassles on hold and make sense of your current thoughts and emotions.

Obviously, when you’re dealing with breast cancer, thinking about yourself, processing your thoughts and trying to divine any changes in your body – as well as wringing as much ‘me time’ out of your day as possible – is a natural reaction. But the point of mindfulness, according to experts, is to remind you not to neglect your mental health while you spend time keeping as physically well as possible. To filter out as many bad sensations and thoughts as possible and remind yourself of the many positive things that are still occurring.

So how easy – or otherwise – is it to step into a mindful attitude? According to experts, there are four steps to take in order to take control of the here and now:

  • Noticing: being able to switch off the autopilot that carries you through the day, and tune in to what changes are occurring both inwardly and outwardly
  • Observing: taking the time to experience and log how things look, feel, smell, and taste
  • Naming: developing the ability to isolate and nail down why certain feelings are cropping up more often than others, and getting to the root of them
  • Accepting: having the ability of know that certain things are happening and being able to work a way around them

What mindfulness isn’t, is fatalistic, or pessimistic, or even passive: it’s a coping tool geared to get people to stop, think, hold back an overwhelming flood of emotions, and cherry-pick the positive ones. For example, one mindfulness technique – the body scan – requires the participant to either lie on their back or sit down, and focus on one thing or action, such as one’s breathing or background noise, and go through the noticing-observing-naming-accepting checklist. The point to all this is to arrive at a level of concentration where you can start regulating and even amending your emotions.

Could mindfulness help breast cancer patients?

You may have noticed by now that mindfulness is nothing new, and it draws heavily on exercises used in yoga and meditation for hundreds of years. But can it really work as part of a toolkit in coping with breast cancer? Seeing as fear and uncertainty can be just as prevalent a symptom of cancer as the physical elements, it certainly won’t do any harm. At a time when it’s vital to be as focused and positive as possible, pursuing and honing a mindfulness regime which suits your lifestyle and attitude could be an essential weapon in your armoury.

stress and breast cancer

The stress and breast cancer link: there’s no such thing…is there?

A disturbing conclusion from a survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund: half of Britons polled think that stress can cause cancer, even though there is no scientific evidence to support that belief.

The survey, which attempted to divine the general public’s knowledge of what does and does not cause cancer, asked 2,070 adults about stress and whether it causes cancer or not – and exactly half of those questioned claimed that it does. And the proportion of people who think that is increasing, according to the annual survey: last year, 46% of the people polled believed that theory – which, according to everything we know, is untrue.

However, nothing is ever that simple when it comes to cancer. While there is no evidence to support the stress/cancer link, the World Cancer Research Fund is quick to point out that stress provides an element of risky behaviour that can lead to cancer. “People under stress can sometimes behave in unhealthy ways, such as smoking, overeating or drinking heavily, which do increase their risk of many cancers,” the Fund pointed out in a press release to support the survey findings. “If you’re under stress, it’s important to try to find other ways of coping, such as doing physical activity.”

‘Poor’ evidence of stress and breast cancer link

This opinion has been backed up in over here by Cancer Research UK, which zones in on the risks (or otherwise) of stress when it comes to breast cancer. As their literature points out;

“It has been suggested that stress can cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. But the evidence for this has been poor. While a few studies have found a link, they have often only looked at a small number of participants or asked women to recall if they were stressed before they developed the disease, which isn’t a reliable way of measuring stress.”

But again, CRUK spokesperson Fiona Osgun was quick to point out the knock-on effects of stress. “Research shows there’s no direct link between stress and cancer, but being stressed can make us more likely to reach for a glass of wine or the biscuit barrel. On the upside, healthy ways of dealing with stress like going for a brisk walk can help cut cancer risk.”

Don’t let stress get on top of you

While no-one is saying that cancer is nothing to worry about, it’s clear that stress doesn’t help. And obviously, we all have different ways of dealing with stress, but the key is to find coping mechanisms which don’t lead to bad habits and unhealthy lifestyles. The NHS has a handy checklist of the symptoms of stress, as well as a swathe of strategies to tackle whatever life throws at you when things don’t go to plan – such as being more active, staying socially busy whilst ensuring a sufficient amount of Me Time, stepping back and evaluating what exactly is winding you up, and staying positive.

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.