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.

obesity and breast cancer

Is there a link between obesity and breast cancer?

We all know about the obesity crisis and its myriad knock-on effects to both our personal health and national economy. And we’re particularly aware of the link between obesity and cancer. But what about breast cancer?

There are three reasons why obesity causes cancer which are commonly agreed upon by the medical community.

Obesity increases oestrogen levels

As well as being the primary female sex hormone, which helps develop and regulate the female reproductive system, oestrogen also acts as a medication, a mood-booster, an appetite-suppressant, an anti-inflammatory, and a key factor in bone development and maintenance of bone mineral density – in both men and women.

However, another thing that oestrogen can do is make certain cells in the body divide when they shouldn’t – and uncontrolled cell division is effectively what cancer is. Post-menopause, the ovaries – the prime producer of oestrogen – shut down. But if you’re piling on the pounds and gaining weight, your fat cells take over and becomes the main source of oestrogen production.

Obesity disrupts the metabolism

As you can imagine, the metabolism – the network of body-regulating transformations which convert food to energy – is an incredibly complicated set-up, and one which can be easily upset by obesity and the extra fat cells it produces. When we take on extra fat cells, there is a risk that they can snuff out our metabolism’s ability to process glucose – and scientists have drawn a link between high glucose levels and an increased risk of cancer.

Obesity increases inflammation

One reaction our bodies experience when we take on extra fat is to summon specialised immune cells called macrophages to deal with dead and dying fat cells. The downside to that is that they release cytokines – a cocktail of chemicals which ultimately causes a condition called chronic inflammation, which causes cells to divide, and can bring on ailments such as pancreatitis and Crohn’s disease, which can increase the risk of cancer.

Obesity and breast cancer

However, when it comes to breast cancer, things become complicated. Certain studies claim that being overweight or obese before menopause actually modestly decreases the risk of breast cancer when compared to women with a leaner body shape. However, after menopause, being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer and we have to factor into these findings that most instances of breast cancer occur after menopause.

In short, we know that there is a clear link between obesity and a higher risk of cancer – the jury is still out on how it does it exactly, but it’s worth remembering that cancer is just one of the many life-threatening ailments brought on by obesity, which includes heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

breast cancer screening

Should yearly mammograms start at 40?

Here in the UK, women aren’t usually invited to take regular mammograms until they reach the age of 50, and it’s been that way for years. However, a recent study from New York makes a solid case for women to start breast screening at a much earlier age.

According to the study, conducted by Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, yearly mammograms for women between the ages of 40 and 80 could cut breast cancer deaths by 40% – which compares with a reduction of 23 to 31% with current screening recommendations that call for less frequent screening which start at an older age.

“Screening annually starting at age 40 is the best strategy to prevent an early breast cancer death,” said Dr Elizabeth Arleo, the leader of the study, which was published in the journal Cancer.

Why 50 in Britain?

Over two million women in the UK undergo mammograms, and the NHS Breast Screening Programme invites women to undergo a screening every three years from the age of 50. Why so late? Because the risk of breast cancer in women under that age is considered to be very low, and certainly too low for a public health service to spend money on in financially-strapped times – which is also why they tend not to issue an automatic invitation to women over 70.

This is not a new theory: an argument that annual, earlier mammograms save more lives has been going on across the Atlantic for a while. Groups such as the American Cancer Society and the US Preventive Services Task Force – a government-backed panel – acknowledge that screening beginning at age 40 will catch more breast cancers, but believe that screenings taken at this age also produce the most false positive results.

According to Dr Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, yearly mammograms starting at 40 would also lead to the most women being called back to doctors’ offices for false alarms and biopsies that turn out to be negative. In other words, for a 40-year-old woman who starts mammography now, the odds of having a false positive are ‘very high’ while the odds that the test will save your life ‘are very small’.

To screen or not to screen?

It’s only when women reach the age of 47 or 48 that the risk/benefit ratio begins to change, and the benefits of screening outweigh the risk of overdiagnosis, claims Dr Brawley. This is reflected in the suggestion by the American Cancer Society that yearly mammograms should start at the age of 45, moving to every other year by the time women reach the age of 55. The US Preventive Services Task Force, on the other hand, recommends that screening should occur every two years from the age of 50.

And it looks like the tide may be turning over here, with some parts of England running a trial where women aged 47 to 73 are being invited to commence or extend a breast screening programme.

At Thames Breast Clinic, we offer a one-stop breast diagnosis clinic for women who wish to go down the private route to seek diagnosis and reassurance.

male breast cancer

Male breast cancer FAQ

Breast cancer in men is a rare occurrence: recent figures demonstrate that while 1 in 8 women can develop breast cancer, only 1 in 1,000 men is likely to contract it over their lifetime. However, due to the stigma associated with contracting something that is typically – and erroneously – seen as a ‘female’ ailment means that men who do contract breast cancer are far less likely to get themselves checked out early enough to get it successfully treated.

While there have been significant advances in encouraging men to be open and aware of other cancers, especially prostate and testicular cancer, the stigmas around breast cancer still persist. It seems that certain men are unaware that, yes, they have breast tissue too, and they need to be as aware of changes in that area as women are. So, let’s break down some of the facts about male breast cancer.

What are the symptoms of male breast cancer?

These can include:

  • A hard, painless lump in the breast area
  • A nipple that has inverted
  • Nipple discharge which may or may not be streaked with blood
  • Soreness and/or a rash around the nipple

Please bear in mind that male breast cancer is an extremely rare condition, but it’s always wise to get checked out by your GP if you suffer from any conditions – particularly if you have a lump in the breast area, have nipple discharge and have a close family history of breast cancer.

What are the causes of male breast cancer?

Due to the rare nature of the condition, it has proven difficult to pinpoint clear links between certain behaviours and male breast cancer. However, there are certain clear links, which include;

  • Family history and genes, namely in instances where faulty versions of genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been inherited, which increase the risk of breast cancer
  • The taking of medicines that increase the amount of oestrogen taken into the body, such as hormone treatments which are sometimes used to treat prostate cancer
  • Lifestyle habits that increase oestrogen levels, particularly obesity and developing cirrhosis through drinking
  • Previous exposure to radiotherapy in the chest area

What are the treatments for male breast cancer?

If you are diagnosed with male breast cancer, there are a range of treatments, depending on how advanced the condition is. Possible treatments include a mastectomy, which will remove the affected breast tissue and nipple, and certain glands in the armpit, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

Is male breast cancer survivable?

Like other cancers, the answer is yes – as long as the cancer is detected early enough. If caught at an early stage, a full recovery is possible. If the cancer isn’t detected until it has spread beyond the breast, a cure becomes more complicated

The two things that any man needs to take away from this information is that male breast cancer is far rarer than the female variety, and that an awareness of any changes in the area and a willingness to report it to a clinic are absolutely crucial.

Dignicap for prevention of chemotherapy alopecia

Spreading the word about cooling caps

It may be termed as a side-effect amongst the medical community at best – and a necessary evil at worst – but there’s no denying the distress and trauma that is caused by chemotherapy alopecia. Research published by the United States National Library of Medicine found that almost 50 per cent of women named hair loss as the most traumatic aspect of their chemo treatment and for a lot of women, it could even be the step too far that puts them off getting the treatment they desperately need.

Cooling caps or cancer cold caps have been around since the 1970s but recent news from America’s Food and Drug Administration further raises awareness of this hair loss prevention method that many women are unaware exists.

The announcement from the FDA involves something called the DigniCap Cooling System, which aims to minimise chemotherapy alopecia for patients with solid tumours. The FDA granted marketing authorisation of the DigniCap for use in patients with breast cancer in 2015 – and studies of women with breast cancer who used the cap while undergoing chemotherapy demonstrated that more than 66 per cent of them reported losing less than half of their hair.

It pays to keep a cool head

The DigniCap Cooling System is a computer-controlled system used during chemotherapy. A cap worn on the head circulates liquid to cool the scalp during treatment, and the cap is covered by a second cap made from neoprene to hold the cooling cap in place and insulate against cooling loss.
The goal of scalp-cooling is to constrict the blood vessels in the scalp, in order to reduce the amount of chemotherapy that reaches the cells in the hair follicles. Cold temperature also decreases the activity of the hair follicles and slows down cell division, making them less affected by chemotherapy. And although the FDA took pains to point out that the DigniCap may not work with some chemotherapy regimens, it’s a very hopeful development.

If the cap fits…

To back up these claims, another American study found that the use of scalp cooling was associated with reduced hair loss at four weeks after the last dose of chemotherapy among women undergoing non–anthracycline-based chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer. According to the results, two-thirds of patients reported hair loss of 50 per cent or less in a scalp cooling group when compared to patients who didn’t use the cap, as well as reporting quality-of-life benefits for the scalp cooling group.

However, there were side-effects, including cold-induced headaches and neck and shoulder discomfort, chills, and pain associated with wearing the cooling cap for an extended period of time. It was also noted that the cap may not be appropriate for patients with cold sensitivity or susceptibility to cold-related injuries. The risk of the chemotherapy drug missing an isolated grouping of cancer cells in the scalp because of the cooling cap is rare, the FDA noted, adding that long-term effects of scalp cooling and risk of scalp metastasis have not been fully studied.

The treatment is used approximately 30 minutes before each chemo session, and at certain points during the recovery period. Most patients report that they can tolerate the feeling of a DigniCap session very well, as – after the initial shock of the temperature decrease – the cap gradually ‘defrosts’ back to room temperature, and the temperature never drops below freezing.

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.