Difference Made by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation
By: Guest Writer, Sarah Poland

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) is a non-profit organization with a mission to “prevent and cure breast cancer by advancing the world’s most promising research.”  Since their founding in 1993, BCRF has raised over $500 million, and over the next couple of years, they will award nearly $60 million in grants to 200+ scientists from top universities and medical institutions around the world. BCRF provides vital funding for cancer research, focusing on six specific areas: tumor biology, genetics, prevention, treatment, metastasis and survivorship.

1.  Tumor Biology

Logically, one must first understand how cancer works before one can treat and prevent it.  To get to the core of the cancer, which is actually a group of more than 100 diseases, every aspect from the smallest molecule to the largest tumor is examined.  Even when detected at the earliest stage, breast cancer is still unpredictable; doctors do not yet know which cells will be treated successfully and which will grow or spread. (University of California San Francisco Medical Center)

Ultimately, BCRF researchers seek the answer to two important “why” questions: Why does a normal cell become abnormal?  Why do different tumors react different to treatment?

According to Dr Charles Perou, “Understanding the bigger picture of the relationship between cancer stem cells, tumor biology, and their response to therapy has now evolved to be our area of focus”.  Once researchers like Dr Perou determine the “why”, they can focus on the “how”: how to treat and ultimately prevent breast cancer.  As every person is unique, so is every tumor, so there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” treatment.  The question of “why” has many answers and, by providing funding to researchers across the globe, BCRF is helping to simultaneously discover all solutions.

2.  Heredity & Ethnicity

You may be surprised to learn that most breast cancer patients do not have a family history of the disease.  “While breast cancers are known to run in families, they are rarely a direct result of mutated genes inherited from a parent.  In fact, inherited, or hereditary, cases account for only 5 – 10 percent of all breast cancers.” – Christine B Ambrosone, PhD

A person’s heredity and ethnicity are definitely risks, but they are not guarantees.  For this reason, genetic cancer research can be quite complicated.  There are certainly racial similarities when it comes to the manifestation of breast cancer, such as a genetic link to more aggressive tumors in women of African descent.  By focusing on racial differences at the molecular level, BCRF researchers will be able to better understand the course of the disease and therefore tailor treatment plans to specific ethnic groups.

3.  Lifestyle & Prevention

By now you know that there are many factors that lead to breast cancer, and lifestyle can be one of them.  While some of these factors, such as age and gender, are beyond one’s control, there are other ways that people can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.

One of the major lifestyle risks is obesity, and BCRF researchers have found that maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and avoiding stress can significantly affect prognosis.  Identifying lifestyle-related risk factors can help to empower people who may otherwise feel helpless when it comes to cancer.

4.  Treatment

Again, every cancer is unique.  Thanks to sophisticated research projects like those funded by BCRF, we know that no two cancers are the same and, subsequently, treatment plans have evolved to accommodate the diverse nature of the disease.

Not only do treatment results vary from person to person, but so do the risks and side effects.  From the patient’s family history to the tumor’s biology, researchers take everything into consideration when determining a treatment plan.  The overall goal is to find the least invasive but most effective option that will produce the best outcome for that particular person.

According to Dawn Hershman, a BCRF researcher, the quality of cancer care is a major national concern. Not all patients receive the most advanced treatment that is available, while others undergo costly treatments that may not help them.  The goal of Dr Hershman’s studies is to “integrate findings from population-based research to improve the quality of cancer care, reduce overuse of expensive drugs and improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors.”  Such patient-oriented approaches will surely lead to more successful results.

5.  Survivorship

Breast cancer research is clearly making a difference when it comes to survival rates.  There are nearly 3 million cancer survivors in the United States alone!  However, once a cancer patient enters remission, their journey is not over.  Survivors face a variety of physical and emotional challenges, from pain and fatigue to depression and insomnia.  By focusing on life after cancer, researchers have been able to identify treatment plans for ongoing care.  For example, research conducted by Patricia Ganz focuses on memory loss after breast cancer treatment.  Her work has provided insight into the causes of and ways to recover from this loss.

While complete breast cancer prevention may be an extremely long-term goal, survivorship is very relevant.  Cure rates have increased dramatically over the last 15 years and, according to Dr Ian Smith, death from breast cancer may become uncommon in the next decade.  Therefore, research focusing on life post-treatment is incredibly important.

6.  Metastasis

Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.  Early detection of breast cancer is certainly associated with higher survival rates but when the disease metastasizes, it often turns deadly. To many researchers, stopping the spread of breast cancer to other areas of the body is the single most important task at hand.

The BCRF has pledged $27 million to an international collaboration focusing on metastasis.  This will help researchers to uncover the reason why some breast cancers spread versus others.  The BCRF recently joined the American Association of Cancer Research and the American Society for Clinical Oncology to sponsor a workshop aimed at developing new drugs to treat metastatic breast cancer.

By fostering a community approach and providing easily-accessible grants and funding, BCRF is leading the fight against breast cancer.  With a talented array of researchers at the helm, this foundation is providing hope for everyone who is affected by the disease.  Dr Ian Smith said it well: “BCRF brings all the top people involved in breast cancer research together, physically once a year and in spirit over the rest of the year.  That leads to better exchange of ideas, and that is the way progress is made–not by people sitting and working in isolation, but by bringing large groups of people together.  This is what makes BCRF so important and so valuable.”

Thanks to Sarah Poland for letting us know how BCRF is helping people with breast cancer, and thanks to BCRF for the crucially important work they do.  I would encourage my readers to go over to the BCRF website and make a donation to this worthy cause.

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