Breast cancer is a global healthcare concern. It’s the most common cancer in the world among women – 12.4% of women in the US alone will develop it over the course of their lifetime. In the UK breast cancer accounts for about 30% of the cancers in women. This subject is close to my heart as breast cancer has affected a member of my immediate family, so when I read that researchers have developed a “highly sensitive” breast cancer blood test, I had to learn more.

According to a study published in Science Translational Medicine, the test is one of the first to successfully monitor breast cancer patients with early stage disease, and could be up to 100 times more sensitive than existing tests. This new method for tracking Breast Cancer is called TARDIS (TARgeted DIgital Sequencing), and it works by analysing the circulating tumour DNA, tiny fragments of DNA from cancer cells that float around in the blood stream. This means the test could allow doctors to use blood samples to monitor how breast cancer treatments are working, thus allowing doctors to personalise patient’s treatments, according to their response to that treatment. Previously, blood tests for breast cancer have only been sensitive enough to reliably identify tumour DNA in people with advanced disease. TAR

Breast cancer. 3d illustration

DIS is able to detect circulating DNA at extremely low concentrations in the blood, and therefore may be used to monitor patients with early-stage breast cancer to find out how their disease is responding to treatment, which could significantly improve survival.

My research led me to unchangeable and life-style related risk factors. And while gender showed that women are at greater risk, there were about 2550 new cases of breast cancer in men in 2018. About 2 out of 3 invasive breast cancers occur in women aged 55 years and over. Five to 10% of cancers are hereditary, caused by a gene mutation. BRAC1 and BRAC2 gene mutations are the most common hereditary cause of breast cancers and are generally found in younger women, and can affect both breasts. A relative with breast cancer on either the mother or father’s side means the risk increases (as is my own case). However, only 15% of breast cancers related to family history, which means the majority of cases have no family history at all. High breast density increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Age, menopause, pregnancy, genetics and some drugs may affect the density of breast tissue.

Then there are life-style related factors like alcohol consumption, obesity and being overweight after menopause, all of which increase your risks of breast cancer. Being childless or having children over the age of 35 and even Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can cause dense breasts, so some types of HRT can increase your risk for developing breast cancer.

Women (and some men) of all ethnicities are vulnerable to this common disease, and the vast majority (around 95%) of breast cancer cases are diagnosed at an early or locally advanced stage (stages 1-3). If I developed breast cancer I’d much rather have a very sensitive test, personalised to me, that showed me my treatment was working – wouldn’t you?