breast cancer recovery rates

Socialising boosts your chances of recovery

According to new research conducted by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the University of Oxford which has looked into the social habits – or lack of them – of cancer patients – those that get out and mingle with other people with cancer have better survival prospects than those who do not interact with other sufferers.

The study analysed electronic medical records from 4,691 cancer patients collected between 2000 and 2009 from two major NHS hospitals, an investigation of the time that patients spent with other patients and their five-year survival rate post-chemotherapy was also examined. All patients were undergoing chemotherapy at the time and the average age was 59.8.

You are not alone

The results? Patients undergoing chemotherapy who socialise with other sufferers have a 68 per cent risk of dying within five years, the research claimed. This is compared to a 69.5 per cent risk if patients are isolated from other sufferers during their treatment.

The differences may be slender but, as lead author Jeff Lienert from the National Human Genome Research Institute pointed out, “a two per cent difference in survival might not sound like a lot, but it’s pretty substantial. If you saw 5,000 patients in nine years, that two per cent improvement would affect 100 people.”

So why is there a difference between those who socialise with people under the same predicament, and those who don’t? The researchers behind the study believe that interacting with others during treatment reduces stress levels, which in turn leads to better prospects of survival.

As Mr Lienert said: “When you’re stressed, stress hormones such as adrenaline are released, resulting in a fight or flight response. If you are then unable to fight or fly – such as in chemotherapy – these hormones can build up.”

Don’t skimp on your social life

Furthermore, the researchers claim that visits from non-cancer sufferers has a similar – and possibly even greater – impact on patient survival.

“Positive social support during the exact moments of greatest stress is crucial,” claimed Mr Lienert. “If you have a friend with cancer, keeping him or her company during chemotherapy probably will help reduce their stress. The impact is likely to be as effective, and possibly more effective, than cancer patients interacting with other cancer patients.”

The idea that social interaction can help people undergoing cancer treatment is nothing new, of course: a 2012 study found that patients that maintained strong social ties to family and friends may be better to cope with their struggle physically and mentally, while cutting back on social interaction whilst undergoing treatment could increase the risk of depression.

It’s obviously not possible to continue exactly as normal when undergoing chemo but life as you know it shouldn’t stop completely. You might just need to plan ahead a bit more:

  • if you have an important event coming up, such as a family wedding or anniversary celebration, speak to your specialist about the planning of your chemotherapy sessions
  • rest during the day to have more energy in the evening
  • take anti-sickness tables if a celebratory meal has been planned
  • small amounts of alcohol shouldn’t compromise your chemotherapy but check with your GP first

If you have recently received a cancer diagnosis or are interested in our One-Stop Breast Cancer Service, call 0800 612 9490 or email us on

breast cancer chemo

New test for low-risk patients may cut out the chemo

Chemotherapy: we know how effective it can be. But we also know what an ordeal it can be, too. Which is why a recent report published in the journal JAMA Oncology may have extremely positive implications for thousands of breast cancer patients.

According to the report, the University of California have developed a new test – called MammaPrint – for cancer survivors. It examines 70 gene variants in blood and saliva which are known to increase the risk of cancer returning. In other words, it can predict which women are at low risk for years after they have surgery to remove cancerous tumours, which could allow those women – which make up half of early stage breast cancer patients – to avoid the severe physical and emotional traumas which are brought on by breast cancer chemo.

How the MammaPrint test works

Simply put, the MammaPrint test is a test of the genomes – the set of DNA within call of an organism – that has the potential to assess the chances of a recurrence of cancer. A sample of a cancer tumour is analysed to examine how active certain genes are, how the activity levels of the genes are affecting the behaviour of the cancer, and discovering how likely it is to grow and spread. The next stage would involve the doctor factoring in your age, your general health, the size and grade of the cancer and whether cancer cells were found in nearby lymph nodes in order to work out a treatment plan.

The research conducted so far suggests the MammaPrint test may eventually be widely used to help make treatment decisions based on the cancer’s risk of coming back within 10 years after diagnosis.

The end of unnecessary chemo?

Obviously, being able to deduce if a woman has a high or low risk of early-stage breast cancer coming back might be an enormous boon to the decision-making process over whether chemotherapy or other treatments to reduce risk after surgery are needed. Although the common perception is that breast cancer is breast cancer, we know that certain breast cancers pose little or no systemic risk. But the problem is that it’s been very hard to pin down and identify low-risk and high-risk cancers, necessitating a better-safe-than-sorry ethos.

Although the trialling of MammaPrint is still in the early stages, the initial results are very encouraging for both the medical community and those of us who have gone through breast cancer. For the former, a test that can accurately identify a section of women who have very little risk of their cancer recurring means that expensive and intensive treatments such as chemo can be safely factored out. For the latter, the more knowledge available the better – allowing patient and doctor to work out a more personalised therapy programme without unnecessary treatments.

Although the MammaPrint technique is still in its infancy, with no indication as to when it’ll be used in the UK, the study results are extremely encouraging – although it’s worth bearing in mind that the technique can only be used to analyse early-stage breast cancers.

exercise and breast cancer

Simple exercise can fend off breast cancer, claims study

We’re all aware of the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet – even we don’t partake in either. But studies presented at a cancer conference hammered home the point by demonstrating that there is a link between exercise and breast cancer and a healthy fitness regime can improve survival rates for cancer sufferers.

One of the studies, which monitored the habits of 1,000 colon cancer patients, discovered that those who exercised regularly, ate more fruits and vegetables and avoided refined grains and meats had a 42% lower chance of death after seven years.

Another study – of 300 breast cancer survivors, conducted by the Queensland University of Technology – concluded that those who exercised for three hours a week had far better rates of survival than those who were not partaking in an exercise programme, even if the ‘exercise’ was as low-level as a regular walk.

Walk away from increased risk

The 300 subjects, who were six weeks out of surgery, were randomly assigned to groups that received exercise counselling or to a control group. The women who found themselves in the exercise counselling group were encouraged into attaining a simple goal: indulging in exercise for 180 minutes per week, in whatever manner they liked. Unsurprisingly, most chose the simplest, cheapest and easiest option: to walk.

After a median follow-up of roughly eight years, researchers discovered that 5.3% of the women who had received exercise counselling had died, versus 11.5% of those who had not. Similarly, 12.1% of women in the group that received exercise counselling had a recurrence of cancer, versus 17.7% of those who did not. Clearly, as the researchers pointed out at the conference, an exercise programme after treatment “has clear potential to influence survival”.

The colon cancer study – although specialising in a different form of cancer – also points the way for increased survival rates amongst women who have dealt with breast cancer, as it aimed to test whether the American Cancer Society’s dietary and exercise guidelines – which recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, sticking to a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and maintaining a healthy body weight – had any bearing on survival rates.

The results revealed a surprisingly strong link between a healthy diet and exercise regime and lowered mortality. Even the colon cancer survivors who drank moderately while following other guidelines had a 42% lower chance of dying than those that did not.

Food for thought

While we need to make clear that the majority of research into the influence of diet on breast cancer has produced findings which are inconclusive and inconsistent, there’s a lot to be said for cutting processed foods and red meat out of your diet and mixing in things like dark, leafy vegetables, olive oil, and fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. For a full breakdown of what’s good and what isn’t – as well as an examination of a food myth or two – the Cancer Research website has a comprehensive list of dietary dos and don’ts.


breast cancer and alcohol

Breast cancer and alcohol: is it time for last orders?

You’ve probably seen the report which has flying all over social media over the past month: the study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund which claimed that half a glass of wine (or a half of beer, or anything that constitutes 1.25 units of alcohol) increases the risk of breast cancer.

The report – created by a non-profit medical body which continuously reviews the global evidence on the links between breast cancer and diet, weight and exercise – claimed that for each 10g of pure alcohol consumed per day, the risk of premenopausal breast cancer increases by 5%, and the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer increases by 9%. We’ve already discussed the plethora of food scares that generate clicks and sell newspapers in a previous post, but alcohol is a far more known quantity in the world of medical research.

The link between breast cancer and alcohol

Sadly, it’s an established fact that alcohol causes 4% of cancers in the UK, and is the direct cause of roughly 12,800 cases of cancer in this country every year. Regular consumption of alcohol increases the risk of mouth and throat cancers, liver cancer and bowel cancer – and there is a clear link between breast cancer and alcohol. The nature of your consumption has nothing to do with it: people who drink a small amount on a daily basis run the same risk as heavier weekend and special-occasion drinkers.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also a side-effect when we consume alcohol: our bodies convert it into a chemical known as acetaldehyde. It’s something that occurs naturally in ripe fruit, bread and coffee, and it’s also the element that causes hangovers. In minor quantities, it’s broken down naturally by the body, but there’s a chance that it can cause cancer by damaging DNA and preventing cells from repairing the damage.

Should you go on the wagon?

So, the only logical thing for people to do is to clear out their drinks cabinets and avoid the wine bars, right? Well, a lot of experts – including the people who launched the study – aren’t as militant about the subject as you’d think. As Sarah Toule, the WCRF’s Head of Health Information, points out; “With social drinking so ingrained in British culture, we realise that giving up might not be realistic for everyone. If you do choose to drink, you should at least try to reduce your intake.”

Other experts claim that the study is telling us nothing we don’t already know – that, like practically everything else we eat and drink, there is an element of risk, and the onus is on the individual, while some are pointing out that the report does not provide absolute risks and – as such – is not solid and inarguable proof that women should go teetotal.

When it comes to breast cancer, there are many different factors which could cause a person to develop it, and some such as genetics and family history are impossible to control. Our advice: by all means be aware of what causes cancer and consider lifestyle changes such as being physically active, controlling your weight and limiting your alcohol intake that can help reduce the risks.

Breast cancer and breast size

Breast cancer and breast size

Here’s a recent news story which caught our attention: a Mexican woman who reported a lump in her breast and reported it to her doctor, who told her that not only was she ‘too young’ to contract breast cancer (at 27!), but her breasts were also too small.

The former is clearly nonsense, but the latter is an incredibly dangerous assumption. Sure enough, she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years later, and underwent a double mastectomy.

We like to think that our own healthcare system is considerably more enlightened, but the idea that larger breast size = larger risk of breast cancer has been reported in the media. So let’s look at it in further detail.

When scientific reports become news headlines

The main source in this way of thinking about breast cancer and breast size stems from a study conducted in 2012 by an American genetics company which examined the DNA of over 16,000 women. The study was actually focussed upon the genetic factors underlying breast development, and sought to identify specific gene variations which were associated with breast size. And of the seven variants they discovered, three were also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

The study went to great pains to point out that these three variations do not automatically translate into increased rates of breast cancer: as we all know, breast cancer is a very complex ailment with a plethora of factors involved. But that doesn’t make for a good newspaper headline, so when the mainstream media jumped upon the study, it got boiled down to something like this. Which wasn’t the intention at all.

Is there a link between breast cancer and breast size?

On the surface, this opinion has an element of common sense about it: if you’ve got more tissue in a certain area, you’d assume that there would be a greater risk of developing cancer there. But there are multiple factors that we know for a scientific fact can increase the risk of breast cancer, including ethnicity, age, family history, oestrogen levels, whether a woman has been through the menopause or not, breastfeeding factors, general body health and lifestyle factors.

And thus far, there is no clear link between larger cup size and increased risk of breast cancer, and the idea that women with smaller breasts or ‘flat-chested’ women are at a reduced or zero risk of contracting breast cancer is completely wrong. If you have breast tissue – and you do, whatever cup size you take – the possibility of contracting breast cancer is there.

The moral of the story? No matter what your cup size, you need to keep tabs on your breasts. If you’re over 50, ensure you’re getting screened for breast cancer – and if you’re under 50 and you feel you may be contracting the symptoms of breast cancer or just want to be reassured, don’t hesitate to visit your GP at the first opportunity.

male breast cancer Thames Valley

Understanding male breast cancer

The first thing that needs to be said about male breast cancer is that, yes, it happens. And it happens more often than you think. While cases of breast cancer in men accounts for a mere 1% of all diagnoses worldwide, that’s still a lot of men. However, while women are encouraged to be open about their condition, there remains a huge stigma amongst male breast cancer sufferers which can have serious implications.

A recent news story brought home the difficulties and outright unfairness associated with male breast cancer, when a British man discovered he had been diagnosed with the condition for a third time. He’d already been in the headlines a decade ago when, after his initial diagnosis, his insurance company refused to pay for treatment because there were no provisions within the fine print for male breast cancer.

Sadly, this feeling of male exclusion continues to persist through all facets of breast cancer care. According to certain medical experts, many breast cancer trials either exclude – or don’t even think about – men from participating in the study. So, what’s the difference between breast cancer between the sexes?

Genetics play a major part

While the idea that the family history of cancer plays a part in the diagnosis and prevention of female breast cancer is a fairly recent theory, genetics has always been a crucial factor in male breast cancer. It’s estimated that 90% of all male breast cancer cases are oestrogen-dependent, which – in a group of people with a traditionally low content of oestrogen – means that science has traditionally seen the ailment as a genetic fluke.

However, recent research contends that a poor diet, obesity and high alcohol intake can play a major part in causing the development of male breast cancer.

Little support for male breast cancer patients

While the stigma of breast cancer amongst women has practically evaporated, it appears to be next to impossible for men to rely on a support system – partly because it’s seen as a female ailment, partly because the treatment involves an intake of oestrogen (which brings on fears of their own), and partly because men are naturally slow to ask for help when they need it.

The good news for male sufferers of breast cancer is that treatment options for the disease are virtually the same for men as they are for women, meaning that male sufferers can rely on the decades of research and discoveries that have increased survival rates. The bad news is, due to the reasons outlined above, men tend to discover they have the ailment much later on, reducing their chances for a full recovery.

While breast cancer in men is and will always continue to be an incredibly rare occurrence, the situation is unlikely to change. So, the onus is on men to check for lumps and bumps in the chest area as regularly as they would in other areas. This guide from a male healthcare website may be a help.

Berkshire mammograms

Your mam knows best: why mammograms are vital

A 2015 study by the US National Library of Medicine confirmed what all medical experts already knew. Finding breast cancer early reduces the risk of dying from it – and in some cases by up to 25%.

Ever since its debut in mid-Sixties America, the mammogram has become the foremost method of detection, and a valuable weapon in the fight against breast cancer. Early detection, often with the help of a mammogram, has helped to transform breast cancer from being an often fatal condition into something that eight out of every ten people diagnosed with it can survive.

However, despite all the benefits that mammograms can offer – and there are many – there is still an element of fear and dread surrounding them. Part of this is due to the completely natural fear of discovering something you’d much rather not think about, but a far riskier factor is the myths and scaremongering that have stemmed from years of mammogram use. So let’s discuss them.

Radiation from mammograms can’t cause cancer

The solid consensus amongst the medical community is that the benefits of mammograms massively outweigh the risk, and under no circumstances should anyone be scared off from getting checked out. Yes, there is an element of radiation involved in a mammogram, but it’s a very tiny dose – far less than a chest X-ray, and comparable to the radiation you are naturally exposed to over quite short period of time.

A recent study conducted by the University of California in 2014 demonstrated that people massively overestimate the exposure to radiation from mammograms, which – they contend – could lead a section of the female population to believe that mammograms aren’t worth the risk.

Parallel-plate compression does not cause tumours

Although the process of parallel-plate compression – where the breasts are squeezed – in order to even out and reduce the thickness of breast tissue – can often be uncomfortable and even painful for a short time, it does not cause the process of metastasis, in which cells break off a tumour, spread, and settle in a different place in the body to create a secondary tumour.

What can a mammogram show?

A radiologist will typically review your mammogram pictures and the good news is that for about 96% of women in the breast screening programme there will be good news. In early stage breast cancer, there might not be a lump, but the mammogram may reveal areas of calcium in the breast tissue that could be an indication of cancerous changes in the breast. A condition called ductal carcinoma in situ, also known as DCIS, can show up on a mammogram.

While having a mammogram is never going to be a pleasurable (or even comfortable) experience, it remains the best and surest way to detect the onset of breast cancer – and for that reason alone, mammograms remain a process that should never be avoided.

cancer scares in food

Cancer scares in food: should we be worrying?

Last year, it was alcohol. The year before, it was processed meat products. This year – already – we’ve been informed that overcooked roast potatoes, burnt toast, hazelnut spread, biscuits and even baby food have been linked to the increased possibility of developing cancer.

It seems that hardly a week goes by without another new cancer scares in food with a medical report linking a particular food to an increased risk of cancer, to the point where you feel if there’s anything left safe to eat. In fact, it gets to the point where you might feel it’s prudent to carry on eating whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that some other medical report will eventually claim that the food in question is actually good for you.

So what’s the truth behind the headlines?

The first truth is that when it comes to attracting attention (and clicks, and shares), not much beats a cancer scare – especially when it’s linked to something we take for granted, like food. And while there’s a grain of truth to the stories – too much of this or that will create a certain effect – the scientific truth tends to be buried underneath the sensationalism, if it’s there at all.

Take the most recent story – a warning from the Food Standards Agency that overcooked starchy foods such as toast and roast potatoes can create a chemical with links to cancer. As statements go, there’s nothing false about it at all: the chemical in question – acrylamide – is a natural by-product of foods with a high starch content that are fried, roasted, baked or toasted, particularly when they’re overdone.

Is there a link between acrylamide and cancer, though? This is where we hit the first grey area, because so far the link has only been proven in testing on animals – in this case, mice. And as is usually the case in studies like this, the mice used in the study were given astronomical amounts of acrylamide before a connection was made – the equivalent of 160 times the amount of burnt toast and overdone potatoes that humans will normally consume on a day-to-day basis.

Bear in mind that a colossal amount of anything – even water – has the potential to kill you.

What to do about cancer scares in food?

While any new information about what we eat should never be dismissed out of hand, it makes sense not to panic about what you put into your body. The first and most obvious thing to do is to look beyond the headlines, because unless you’re actively reading the most clickbaity websites, the truth about the risk will be found further down the page. You need to find out:

  1. Whether the link to cancer has been established in humans as well as animals
  2. How great the increase of the risk is – in certain cases, such as the recent bacon scare, the increased risk was so minimal as to be inconsequential
  3. The credibility of the people who are making the claim
  4. What reputable organisations – such as the NHS, the European Safety Authority, the US’s FDA, etc – have said in response

The logical next step is to take the information on board and follow sensible advice on dietary matters and act accordingly. A lot of the foods that pop up in these stories – potatoes, bread, hazelnut spread, crisps, biscuits, etc – are almost always ‘treat foods’ that are to be eaten sparingly.

Instead of worrying unnecessarily about individual foods and their possible impact on your health, it is important to bear in mind that the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking is obesity so a sensible and healthy diet should always be your aim.

breast prostheses and Mastectomy bras

Breast prostheses and mastectomy bras: a brief guide

Breast prostheses have been around since 1885, when an American inventor patented a ‘Breast-Pad’, which was made of rubber and filled with air. Thankfully, the technology has moved on since then: modern prostheses are usually made from silicone, which have the shape, weight and feel of a natural breast. In some instances, they can be fitted to the body with the use of an adhesive backing – but most women prefer wearing them in specially-fitted bras.

A brief history of breast prostheses

The modern mastectomy bra was pioneered in the mid-eighties, and originally consisted of a specialist bra with a silicon ring and specialist shape to replicate the appearance of a breast, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the current ideal – a bra with space for an attachable prosthesis – became popular.

Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last year, mastectomy bras are officially labelled as ‘artificial body parts’, thanks to a German company which argued that they should be exempt from European import tax. But the real advantage to mastectomy bras is that they allow women to carry on wearing something they’ve been used to for all of their adult lives. All manner of designers have got in on the act, and there are specialist shops. They’re becoming part of our culture, too – as a recent storyline in Coronation Street demonstrated.

When can I wear a mastectomy bra?

Around six to eight weeks after breast surgery, the incisions that have been made will have healed, and you will be ready to be fitted for a weighted prosthesis. You will be advised of which fitters are operating in your area.

The fitter will begin by accessing the condition of the skin, to ensure there is no drainage or open wound in the incision area. Then, the fitter will determine your proper bra size by taking measurements at strategic points. It goes without saying that getting the fit right is crucial, not only to achieve a natural look as possible, but to ensure the optimum support of the prosthesis is achieved.

The next stage is the prosthesis recommendation. If you have had a single mastectomy, the fitter will evaluate the drape and shape of the existing breast and select a prosthesis that matches – be it a teardrop, triangle, heart or whatever shape it is. If you’ve had a double mastectomy, the fitter will recommend prostheses which will match and flatter your current dimensions.

The final stage involves you wearing a smock or drape and evaluating the recommended look for yourself, and either approving the new look or asking for corrections.

When do I need to change my new prosthesis?

If you’ve had a single mastectomy, experts recommend a yearly catch-up session with your fitter. There’s an obvious reason for that: as time goes on, your existing breast may change shape, and it makes sense to ensure your prosthesis continues to match up.

On average, the manufacturer’s warranty on breast prostheses lasts for two years – and as long as you treat them with care and avoid damaging them with accidental punctures or with exposure to perfumes or toiletries, your new mastectomy lingerie should boost your self-confidence for many days to come.

having a double mastectomy? Have a party too

Having a double mastectomy? Have a party too

having a double mastectomy? Have a party tooNone of us would ever know how we’d deal with a high risk of breast cancer, but this one is new to us: a woman from Leicestershire commemorated her double mastectomy and subsequent breast replacement treatment by throwing not one but two parties.

Sally Chapman, a teacher from Hinckley, was diagnosed as a carrier of BRCA back in 2012 – and after going through the family history and discovering that eleven of her grandmother’s siblings had died of cancer, decided to undergo a double mastectomy in 2015. But before doing so, she threw a ‘Goodbye Bad Boobs’ party, with a cake shaped like a pair of breasts, playing pin-the-tassels-on-the-boob, and even hanging a breast-shaped piñata from the ceiling.

‘You’re only as young as you are today’

Beneath the bravado, there was an understandable undertow of trepidation. Sally admitted she didn’t know what to expect. “Because I was young I thought I would have ages to consider my options and didn’t want to worry about it but having BRCA is very serious. I was told by someone going through preventative surgery that ‘You’re only as young as you are today’ which after a time helped me realise I needed to take action.”

And when she finished having breast reconstruction surgery – which included having new nipples constructed from the fat beneath the scar tissue in her breasts – she threw another party to welcome in her new look.

Party politics of a mastectomy

Although throwing a party for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery isn’t for everyone, we applaud Sally’s decision to do her own thing in order to commemorate a hugely important phase of her life, and to be completely open about her issues. And it’s a reminder that we have come a very long way as a society when it comes to dealing with breast cancer.

There’s nothing new about breast cancer: the first recorded diagnosis goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, but for much of history the ailment was stigmatised to the point where women would rather suffer (and decline) in silence than do anything about it – and even when they did, the theories of the cause ranged from too much (or too little) bile or phlegm, the result of a physical injury, too little (or too much) sexual activity, or even divine punishment.

It wasn’t until the improvement in sanitation (and the corresponding boost in life expectancy) in the 19th Century that breast cancer was taken seriously, but it took the creation of National Breast Cancer Awareness month in the USA in 1985 – and the rise of the Pink Ribbon throughout the globe in the Nineties – to remove the stigma of breast cancer.

Sally is now the CEO of her own trust, which is aiming to raise awareness about the BRCA gene and help women to take control of their health and make informed decisions about their bodies, and is involved in a Leicestershire campaign to help pay the costs of genetic testing for adopted women who have no knowledge of their ancestors’ medical histories. If you’re in the area and you’re concerned about the BRCA gene, get in touch with them.