October 1 has marked the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month for almost 30 years. Each year, cancer survivors, their friends and loved ones wear the iconic pink ribbon and take part in fundraising events to raise awareness and help find a cure.
This disease will directly affect one in nine Canadian women, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
Although there’s no one known cause, researchers believe that inherited and/or environmental factors must be present for breast cancer to develop.
A new film about Canadian Annie Parker, who survived breast cancer, ovarian cancer and a tumour behind her liver, dramatizes her tireless efforts to encourage researchers to examine a genetic link to breast cancer. Decoding Annie Parker, highlighted in the Globe & Mail this week, stars Oscar winner Helen Hunt as U.S. geneticist Dr. Mary-Claire King, who identified the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.
While we can’t change the genetic characteristics we inherited from our parents, we can alter the environmental factors such as physical activity, alcohol/drug consumption, diet, and exposure to harmful chemicals.
Cancer originates from cell mutation, which occurs when a cell’s DNA has been damaged. Instead of repairing itself or dying off, it lives on and produces more cancer cells.
Many scientists believe cancer cells are propagated by a small subset of cells with stem cell properties – and that these cancer stem cells must be eliminated to cure the disease. This thinking is based on a 1994 Canadian discovery that a small number of tumour-initiating cells could generate leukemia in mice. Researchers are now working to identify and isolate these cancer stem cells to detect breast cancer earlier, predict its prognosis, and provide drug therapy targets.
While there is currently no Health Canada or FDA approved stem cell therapy for breast cancer, research has progressed to clinical trials. Many of these studies involve using new methods to monitor the cells and DNA present in patients by assessing tissue samples before surgery, at the time of removing the cancer, and for many years afterwards. Other studies are testing whether cancer stem cell biomarkers can be used to predict responses to therapies for early stage breast cancers. Click here for more information about stem cells research and efforts to cure breast cancer.