World-First Study Investigating Breast Cancer in Young Women
Any breast cancer diagnosis is life shattering, but for young women who have a family or are wanting to start one, this adds a huge burden to an already trialling time.
Today breast cancer is not just a disease affecting older women. Currently 25 per cent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are premenopausal and research shows cancer in these women is typically more aggressive and more likely to spread to the bone.
Despite this, few studies have been undertaken looking at how a premenopausal woman’s menstrual cycle could affect a breast cancer diagnosis. This is where PhD candidate Sarah Bernhardt’s project comes in, launching her world-first study at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research (BHI) earlier this year.
“Most of the past studies used to develop the tests that currently diagnose breast cancer were performed in post-menopausal women. These are women who do not menstruate and therefore are not exposed to fluctuations in hormones,” Sarah said.
A young woman herself with a strong passion for making a difference for her peers and future generations, Sarah’s study is looking at how a premenopausal woman’s menstrual cycle can affect a breast cancer diagnosis.
“During a woman’s menstrual cycle the hormones oestrogen and progesterone are present and they fluctuate in a cycle,” Sarah explained.
“These hormones are involved in the development of the normal breast and throughout your menstrual cycle your breast changes normally so it is expected that during this time the breast tumour will also change.
“What I want to know is if you diagnose a woman’s breast cancer at one stage, for example when there is a lot of oestrogen present, is that going to be a different diagnosis to if it was diagnosed at a different stage say two weeks later?
“Then I want to see if this fluctuation in hormones affects the overall diagnosis of the breast tumour which in turn could affect what treatment is given.”
Importantly breast cancer is not a single disease, it is categorised into five alternative sub types that are all different in their biology and what method of treatment is used to target the cancer.
“This means in diagnosing breast cancer you first need to understand what type of cancer it is so it can be treated in the best way,” Sarah said.
“For example you’ve got oestrogen receptor positive diseases and you treat them with a certain drug because it targets the oestrogen receptor, you can’t then use the same drug on an oestrogen negative disease because it just wouldn’t work.”
Based on her findings Sarah will then determine whether a premenopausal woman’s fluctuations in hormones affect the diagnostic tests used to conclude which type of breast cancer they have.
“As current diagnostic tests were developed in postmenopausal women, we don’t yet know whether the hormones in premenopausal women will affect the tests.
“I am trying to discover if the breast tumour changes as the hormones fluctuate. We’ll also be taking biopsies of women who have cancer at two different times, so one when they are diagnosed and the next about two weeks later when it is surgically removed.
“This should be at a different phase of their menstrual cycle so we can look at the tumour and see if it has changed at all and if this affects how it responds to treatment.
“This particular part of the study will be a world-first! No one has yet looked at how the breast cancer changes in paired samples of premenopausal women.”
Eager to see a future free of breast cancer, Sarah’s findings will assist in improving diagnosis and treatment for young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at some of the most important stages of their lives.
“When these young women are diagnosed with breast cancer it’s the rest of their lives that can be impacted,” she said.
“I have such a passion for this research! Being a woman it’s the cancer I can relate to the most. With one in eight women affected by the disease in their lifetime, we’re guaranteed to know someone who is going to go through it now or in the future.”