The Need to Know: The facts about breast cancer from lead researcher Wendy Ingman
Whether it’s what you should be eating, how much exercise you should be doing or how often you should visit your dentist, women are constantly inundated with information around their health. But the one thing we should all take seriously is how we listen to our bodies.
To set the record straight, we chatted to Associate Professor Wendy Ingman, formally known as The Hospital Research Foundation (THRF) and Australian Breast Cancer Research Fellow; Lead Researcher, Breast Biology & Cancer Unit, Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research; University of Adelaide and The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, South Australia. This is a woman who knows what she’s talking about.
With a lengthy list of achievements and a wealth of knowledge up her sleeve, Wendy shares her research and the information every woman needs to know in order to #bebreastaware.
Firstly, what exactly is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a cancer that starts in the breast. Cancer occurs when a cell of your own body goes rogue and starts doing the wrong thing, growing outside of the boundaries of where it should be. It progresses to “take over” whatever tissue it’s in. The most serious phase of breast cancer is when the rogue cells leave the breast and go to other sites in the body such as the bone, liver, or the brain. That’s when they interfere with other body functions and threaten life.
Which women are at the highest risk of developing breast cancer?
The biggest risk factor for breast cancer is increasing age, which is obviously something we can’t change, and this is true for most cancers. The longer you live the more likely it is that one of the cells in your body is going to go rogue.
Family history is another factor. A woman whose close relative has had breast cancer, particularly if that breast cancer is at an early age, will have an increased risk of breast cancer. There’s also breast density, which is one of the risk factors we study in our lab, as well as going through puberty early and going through menopause late. Having children later in life or not having children at all can also increase chances of breast cancer.
There are also modifiable risk factors – the ones that we can control. Obesity, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise are all factors that increase the risk of breast cancer.
At what age should women start conducting breast checks/have Mammograms?
In terms of doing your own breast checks, you’re never too young to start. I think being familiar with how your breasts look and how they feel is important at any age. Breast cancer does affect women in their twenties – it’s much less common but it still does happen.
Having mammograms is recommended from the age of 50, however women can start being screened at 40 if they wish. There are free breast screen services available for women every two years and you don’t need a doctor’s referral, just book an appointment directly with BreastScreen.
What are some of the most common misconceptions around breast cancer and its prevention?
There’s this misconception that you only have to worry about breast cancer if you have a family history of it and that’s really not the case. We hear a lot of disbelief from women who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer as they don’t have a family history. Eight out of nine women with breast cancer don’t have a family history.
Another misconception is that some women believe a mammogram will prevent breast cancer. A mammogram is a screening tool for the early detection of breast cancer, which will reduce your risk of dying of breast cancer but it doesn’t actually prevent breast cancer itself.
There’s also the belief that men don’t have to worry about getting breast cancer. Men have cells in the breast region which can go rogue, and although it is much less common, breast cancer can still threaten a man’s life.
Tell us a bit about your specific area of research.
We study the biology of breast cancer and how it’s caused or why certain factors increase risk. Part of this research is understanding how the normal breast functions across a woman’s lifetime and dissecting how risk factors affect the susceptibility of the breast to cancer.
One of our studies looks at understanding how the menstrual cycle affects breast cancer risk. What we’ve discovered is that there appears to be a window of breast cancer risk, which opens up each menstrual cycle around the time a woman has her period. There is a particular set of cells in the breast, which usually look after the breast to make sure that cells do not go rogue. At this particular stage of the menstrual cycle, those cells aren’t doing their job properly.
Another example of the research we’ve been doing is understanding how inflammation can affect breast density. We have discovered that if there is chronic low-level inflammation in the breast, this can actually be a driver of higher density of the breast and lead to increased breast cancer risk. This discovery is really exciting because it opens the door for new opportunities to reduce women’s breast cancer risk with anti-inflammatories, however this research is still in its early stages.
What exactly does breast density mean and how can women learn more about their own breast density?
Breast density is the white and bright on a mammogram. A mammogram is basically an x-ray of the breast. The more white and bright the mammogram, the denser the breast tissue. You need to have a mammogram to determine your breast density and the radiologist can tell you what your breast density is.
It’s important not just because it’s a risk factor for breast cancer but because it can hide cancers on a mammogram. The dense breast tissue is white and bright similar to how cancers look on a mammogram, making it very difficult for the radiologist to see potential cancer in there.
Where do you see the future of breast cancer research?
I’m really excited about the possibility of using breast density as a tool for pinpointing the women who are at higher risk of breast cancer and then taking steps to reduce that risk.
There are also some researchers who are working on ways to measure breast density in young women without using a mammogram. We could identify women in their early twenties who are at increased risk of breast cancer because of their density and reduce that risk early on.
Throughout October, Intimo will donate 10% of all purchases made in fundraising bookings to our charity partner Australian Breast Cancer Research (ABCR) to aid Wendy’s much-needed research into breast cancer prevention and improved treatments. ABCR directs 100% of all donations to the cause and that’s good news for all of us.
To help the cause, share the message of breast awareness with the special women in your life and host your own fundraiser.