The breast cancer universe is constantly evolving with new research and development (R&D). As a loud and proud #breastcancerfeminist I want to make sure that you’re all educated on some of the most pressing news bulletins regarding breast cancer R&D. After all, breast cancer awareness is only superficial. You may know about breast cancer, but do you know what’s being debated, researched, or discovered? This week I’ll break the news down for you, and give you my commentary as well 😉
1) A Mexican Teenage Boy Invents a Bra that Can Detect Breast Cancer
Julian Rios Cantu was a fairly typical teenage boy, until his mom almost died from breast cancer after a relapse when he was thirteen years old. His mom lost both of her breasts and she almost died from the disease. Julian can never take away the pain and mutiliation that his mother felt, but as a STEM wizard, at the age of seventeen he co-founded a company called Higia Technologies with his three friends, and by eighteen he developed the EVA auto-exploration bra that is capable of detecting breast cancer before it becomes a malignant tumor. When I was eighteen I was just excited to pass my AP European History exam, and here is this kid winning awards for his ground-breaking innovations.
So, what is this magic bra exactly? In essence, the EVA bra uses something called tactile sensors, which in non-science speak means a sensor that detects changes between a physical object and its environment, to map the surface of each breast and track changes in breast color, temperature, and texture. According to Julian, a tumor can be detected when there is an increase in blood, thus an increase in heat, and changes in texture, to a particular area of the breast(s). Using Bluetooth technology, the bra then sends the test results to a mobile app. When the results are transmitted to the app, your oncologist also receives the updates. The motivation behind this is that Julian cites long wait-times between patient and oncologist appointments as unnecessary vulnerabilities in a woman’s health. And according to Julian, self-checking your breasts is too subjective of a practice that leads to high fatalities, so utilizing the bra is much less fool-proof.
So if you’re wondering, “well that sounds cool and all, but I don’t want to wear some high-tech freaky bra thing all the time” don’t worry, you don’t have to. The bra is designed so that you only have to wear it for 60 – 90 minutes per week. That’s right, you could be less than halfway through your Sunday night Netflix binge sesh and be ready to strap off that EVA bra.
I’ve read a few reports about the EVA bra, but personally there’s still one semi-critical detail that I don’t understand. According to the press on this article, the EVA bra is designed for women that are pregenetically disposed to breast cancer. I don’t really understand why that’s the case because I would imagine that any woman could benefit from this technology, but hey, only time will tell how widely accessible the EVA bra will be in the general market.
If you’re amped after reading this to go and invest in an EVA bra, sorry to disappoint but it’s not available yet. Julian has reported that the award-winning bra is still a prototype, and it probably won’t be available on the mass market for another two years. But be on the lookout for the EVA bra, because five years from now you might have Julian to thank for saving your life. And he’s not even in college yet, unbelievable.
PS. For all my Latin Americanists out there, in the process of researching this news story I discovered that in 2014, 5,988 women in Mexico died from breast cancer. Additionally in the OECD, Mexico has the second lowest amount of mammograms conducted per one million people, only about 9.5 mammographs per one million inhabitants. Breast cancer feminism is definitely needed for our friends from the south, pa’lante my #breastcancerfeminists!
Sources: Huff Post, Julian YouTube promo video, El Universal, OECD
2) Just Half a Glass of Wine Per Day Can Increase a Woman’s Chances for Breast Cancer
So wine is one of those things where practically every other day you hear a story about how wine will either save your life or kill you. It’s hard for medical researchers to understand the correlations between alcohol consumption and breast cancer diagnosis. However, a group of researchers based out of the World Cancer Research Fund in the UK and the American Institute for Cancer Research co-released a study which said that a half glass of wine per day, or one small serving of any alcohol like beer, spirits, etc. can make women more susceptible to breast cancer. Specifically, a half glass of wine a day could increase a pre-menopausal woman’s chances for breast cancer diagnosis by 5%, and post-menopausal woman’s chances by 9%. Yikes, so what’s the deal? Or for my emoji-literate readers:🍷➡️☠️⁉️
So first, let’s understand the study itself. In academia, there are several different types of reports that can be published. The one that we most often think of is the type where researchers go into their science labs and conduct mad experiments that can clone goats or something. And that kind of innovative research is cool — it’s hypothesis driven and leads to new discoveries. But often times, there are so many scientists conducting studies like that all over the world that it’s difficult to come to a consensus on what’s actually accurate! That being said, this report was essentially a loooong literature review, analyzing 119 studies that according to the Washington Post, encompassed data on approximately 12 million women worldwide. In the words of Phoebe Buffet, “I don’t have enough fingers to do that kind of math!”
OK, so from that meta-analysis of 119 studies, the researchers found 10 studies related to alcohol consumption among pre-menopausal women, and 22 studies related to alcohol consumption among post-menopausal women. None of these studies included women that were pre-genetically disposed to breast cancer, which is a huge limitation. Those studies in the meta-analysis were found to be in agreement that alcohol consumption is positively correlated with breast cancer.
Apart from alcohol consumption’s correlation to breast cancer, the study reached a few other conclusions, which is important. For instance, it was concluded that exercise is thought to reduce a woman’s risk for breast cancer. The most active pre-menopausal women had a 17% less chance of developing a malignancy as compared to their less active counterparts, and post-menopausal women had a 10% less chance.
It is thought that alcohol consumption increases estrogen levels, thus increasing a woman’s chance for breast cancer, and exercise reduces estrogen levels. So awesome, I’m pretty fit, so if I go run a half marathon and then down half a bottle of wine, I break even right? Well, according to the research, I don’t, or there’s no evidence to suggest my estrogen levels don’t break even. It’s kind of like drinking Four Loco, just because there’s caffeine in there doesn’t mean it mitigates the depressants found in alcohol!
OK, so there’s alcohol and exercise, got it, but did you know that according to the most updated guidelines from Cancer Research UK, released in 2016, there are 18 different factors that can cause breast cancer to some degree. And many of the factors that are included in these guidelines we can’t control, such as: family history, genetics, height, age of your first period, ethnicity, sex, and age. If you can control your age, then you really should stop reading this blog and go write an award-winning novel or something, but for us mortal humans, we can’t control the majority of those above-mentioned factors. Likewise, this meta-analysis the existence of these biological factors that are positively correlated with breast cancer which honestly, we just simply can’t control.
So all in all, the consensus from these articles is the following: this recent report confirms conventional wisdom that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer diagnosis. But alcohol consumption is not found to be outlandishly correlated as compared to other factors, many of which you can’t control. So generally, as long as you’re not binge drinking or suffer from alcoholism, you’ll probably be OK to drink a glass of wine on your date night. Make it two in fact, whatever. Just follow US federal guidelines for how much alcohol you should consume and your chances for breast cancer are probably no statistically greater than they would be otherwise.
And PS, the researchers note that alcohol is probably more directly correlated with other kinds of cancer (say helloooooo to your liver if you haven’t in awhile!).
Sources: BBC, Washington Post, CNN
3) A Cooling Cap Can Lower Hair Loss During Chemotherapy
When thinking about breast cancer, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t almost instantly think of a woman with no hair. Chemotherapy treatments often cause Alopecia, AKA circular patterns of hair loss that often overlap, in women. And since hair is such a huge physical identifier that in modern days distinguishes women from men (because let’s be clear, we’re leaving man buns OUT of this discussion), it’s worth us asking — can we find a way to prescribe chemotherapy to women and not have them lose their hair?
It’s 2017 and apparently we have yet to discover an answer to that question until very recently, when two recent studies from the University of California San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Apparently, a cooling cap that is worn over the scalp either before, during, or after chemotherapy treatment can lower hair loss. But wowza is that cooling cap cold! The temperature in these two studies was maintained at 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and they had to wear the cap for sometimes as long as 120 minutes at once. I can barely handle South Florida air-conditioning, I’d be such a wimp wearing one of those caps.
According to the University of California study, out of the women that were wearing the cap, a reported 66% lost less than half of their hair (N = 122) . That’s 2/3 of them! And for the Baylor College study, 51% of women using the cap maintained at least half of their hair, as compared to 0% of the control group not using the cap (N = 142).
Now, because life quite frankly just isn’t fair, let me explain why this isn’t a happy-ever-after for breast cancer patients. For starters, even with the cooling cap, women are still found to be very likely to experience hair thinning. Second, for our cash-strapped women, the cap is not particularly affordable, as it is valued anywhere between $1,500 – $3,000. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of money just lying around, and not many women do. But perhaps the most starking point I’d like to emphasize is that surprisingly, even with the higher hair retention from the cooling cap, according to the Baylor College study the women’s reported quality of life scores did not increase. In other words, keeping their hair didn’t improve how they viewed their quality of life. Now, a post-study evaluation of the results indicates that the quality of life scores should be interpreted cautiously, as they were part of a larger testing cycle of emotional functioning, social functioning, anxiety, depression, and body image. Plus let’s be honest, these women in the study had just undergone several iterations of chemotherapy treatment, they probably have more on their mind than just their alopecia. Nonetheless, hair retention may be great, but it’s not going to suddenly make breast cancer patients feel like they’re top on of the world.
It’s still pretty cool though that we’re finally innovating technology that can help women perhaps feel less alien as they’re going through chemotherapy. I’m not going to knock down progress when I see it!
Sources: Reuters, JAMA
4) Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients Are Experiencing Longer Life Spans
For many women, the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is a death sentence. As a quick recap before we go any further here, metastatic breast cancer means simply that the cancer has spread beyond the breast to at least one other organ. Metastatic cancer is also known as stage IV cancer. My mom passed away from metastatic breast cancer — it wasn’t the cancer in her breasts that killed her but rather, the cancer that had spread to her liver. In the US, the five-year survival rate for women with metastatic breast cancer has only been around 22%. However, recent research published in the last week is now starting to say otherwise.
Research from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is reporting two major findings. The first is that the amount of women with metastatic breast cancer surpassing the five-year survival mark has increased. Specifically, for women under the age of 50, the five-year survival rate increased from 18% between 1992 – 1994, to 36% between 2005 – 2012. The second major finding is that the median survival time has also increased from 22 months to 39 months for women under the age of 50, and from 19 months to 30 months for women between the ages of 50 and 64.
Now your next logical question is probably somewhere along the lines of “why is this happening?” In general, the research cites three broad reasons: more effective drugs, less side effects, and earlier diagnoses. The study is left on the conclusion that while metastatic breast cancer can’t necessarily be cured, quality of life and a woman’s overall life span has improved over the last two decades.
So OK, it’s that time in the blog post for me to sound like a jackass. To echo some of the sentiments that I’ve seen in the breast cancer blogging community, even if women are living longer with metastatic breast cancer, it can’t be understated that they’re still dying. The death rate for women with breast cancer has not drastically improved in the US over the last two decades in spite of this news. Looking at breast cancer trends as a whole, according to the CDC’s data from 1975 – 2014, breast cancer deaths have decreased on average 1.8% per year, but breast cancer incidence has only remained stable, if not actually increased since that time. In other words, it’s not like breast cancer deaths as related to breast cancer incidence has significantly progressed in the last few decades, even with the five-year survival rate among breast cancer patients as a whole, including metastatic cases, having increased.
But getting back to the actual data at hand, there is much more longitudinal data that needs to be captured over the next few decades in order to better understand trends related to the lifespan of women with metastatic breast cancer. Longitudinal data in essence means the collection of data for one person in intervals over an extended period of time. It’d be like me asking you how much money you have in your savings account once every five years for forty years. By the eighth time I’ve asked you, I have a measurable trend of how much money you have in your savings account.
Longitudinal data is needed for the following two critical pieces of information: recurrence rates among women suffering from metastatic breast cancer, as well as general breakdowns of these trends among the various subtypes of metastatic breast cancer. Recurrence rates are important because it is estimated that only 26% of metastatic breast cancer patients were diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer de novo or upon their initial diagnosis. The remaining 74% have a personal history of early-stage breast cancer. So when does the breast cancer recur? Does it recur in the breasts or outside the breasts? Hopefully hospital records and, in turn, statistical analysis, will improve to better understand national trends on recurrence rates. As for metastatic breast cancer subtypes, it’s perhaps less common knowledge than it should be that there are different variations of breast cancer, it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of deal. The more data we have to better understand the statistical breaks between the subtypes, the better.
This new report suggests that there are 3.5 million women nationwide that are breast cancer survivors, and from them 155,000 have metastatic stage IV breast cancer. Meanwhile, it is estimated by groups like the American Cancer Society that approximately 40,000 women in the US will die from breast cancer this year. Just bear in mind that these aren’t just numbers I’m rattling off — these are real lives. My friends, we have a long way to go before we start celebrating, let’s take the good news from this research for what it is and move forward.
Sources: Cancer Epidemiology journal, CDC, Consumer Reports, Breastcancer.org, Reuters