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Can we predict and prevent breast cancer years before it develops?

01/04/2016 | By Freedom Health Insurance
There have been stories in the news about scientists’ ability to predict breast cancer years before the disease develops.
One group at the University of Copenhagen claims that their method of using a metabolic blood profile allows them to predict whether breast cancer will develop up to five years before the disease occurs, though the method is still in the early stages of development (1).
Another group at Imperial College London, working with a group in Italy, claims that their method, using a newly identified blood biomarker, would help identify more women at an increased risk of breast cancer (2).

How is breast cancer screened now?

Currently, the most effective form of screening available for breast cancer is mammographic screening, which involves taking X-ray images of the breast (3).
However, one study has found that exposure to the radiation that is used during mammographic screening may increase the risk of breast cancer in certain people (under the age of 30 and with a particular gene mutation) (4).
Mammographic screening can also only detect existing tumours or lesions, so it cannot predict whether breast cancer will develop, but only spot it once it has already developed (3).

Could the new methods successfully predict breast cancer?

For both of the methods mentioned at the beginning of the article, research is in the very early stages. A limited number of people have been tested using these methods, so further research will need to be done in order to determine how effective each method is in predicting breast cancer.
However, each of the groups that has worked on the research is hopeful that the methods they have developed could be used successfully. Lars Ove Dragstead from the University of Copenhagen group thinks that “it will probably also be possible to use similar models to predict other diseases (1),”; and James Flanagan, who worked on the Imperial College London study, comments: “There is a possibility that we may find ways in which you can modify your epigenetic risk, so that fewer people develop cancer in the first place (2).”

Could breast cancer be prevented if it was predicted before the disease developed?

As with other cancers, breast cancer recovery is more likely if the disease is caught in its early stages (3). If it is detected early on, then the cancerous cells can be removed through surgery, and patients can also be treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to prevent the cancer from spreading to other areas of the body (3).  
However, the cause of breast cancer, as with other types of cancer, is not fully understood (5). Therefore, doctors and scientists can only offer a certain amount of advice on how women can adjust their lifestyle to make themselves less susceptible to breast cancer.

Some research on adjusting lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer suggests that breast feeding (6a) and eating a Mediterranean diet (6b) may contribute to a reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer.
There are also surgical and medication options available to women who have a high risk of developing breast cancer. The surgical procedure to remove the breasts (mastectomy) could reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 90% (5), while the medication, despite undergoing clinical trials and being made available through the NHS (5), is not yet licenced for the purpose of reducing the risk of cancer and can cause side effects (5).


Though researchers are constantly discovering new information about breast cancer, there is much about the disease that we still don’t know.
These discoveries may be important in finding out more about how the disease works; and, if successful, the methods of predicting breast cancer years before it actually develops may prove effective in treating the disease in its early stages and improving the chances of survival.
However, there is more research that needs to be done before the methods described above can be used in a practical way.

Related Articles

1. UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN. New blood test can predict future breast cancer [Online] Available here.
2. IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON. DNA discovery points to new clinical biomarker in predicting breast cancer risk [Online] Available here.
3. NHS CHOICES. Breast cancer (female) [Online] Available here.
4. BMJ. Exposure to diagnostic radiation and risk of breast cancer among carriers of BRCA1/2 mutations: retrospective cohort study (GENE-RAD-RISK) [Online] Available here.
5. NHS CHOICES. Breast cancer (female) - Prevention [Online] Available here.
6a. BMJ. Breast feeding reduces risk of breast cancer recurrence, study finds [Online] Available here.
6b. BMJ. Reduced breast cancer risk seen with Mediterranean diet and added olive oil [Online] Available here