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Sarah Harding’s legacy: finding women who may have higher breast cancer risks

Tim Gunn
by Tim Gunn | News

30 May 2024

1 comment 1 comment

Anna Housley and her husband Tom. The BCAN-RAY project found that Anna has an increased risk of developing breast cancer. She now gets yearly mammograms.
Anna Housley and her husband Tom. The BCAN-RAY project found that Anna may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. She now gets yearly screening mammograms.


Just a year after opening, the breast cancer research project launched in memory of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding is already identifying and finding support for younger women who may be at an increased risk of developing the disease.  

BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women) is one of the first studies in the world to focus on finding breast cancer risk factors in women in their 30s. So far, it has found 20 women who might have an above-average risk of breast cancer. 10 of them have already been referred for annual surveillance mammograms.

As BCAN-RAY continues, we’ll find out whether the risk factors it has identified in these women can be used to accurately predict their actual breast cancer risk. And, thanks to the annual surveillance mammograms, the study could help us catch more cases sooner, when treatment is most likely to be successful.

Cancer in under-50s

Globally and in the UK, we’re seeing a small increase in rates of early-onset cancers, which affect people aged 25-49. More research is needed to help us understand exactly why this is happening. However, it’s important to remember that 90% of all cancers affect people over 50. 

One of the women identified through BCAN-RAY is Anna Housley, a 39-year-old physiotherapist and mother of two from Hale in South Manchester. In April, Anna’s first mammogram showed she had no signs of cancer.

“Nobody wants to be told they are at increased risk of developing cancer, so it was a bit of a shock,” she said. “But I was also very thankful that I had been identified because if I hadn’t been part of this study, I would have never known.”

A new way to look at breast cancer risk

We helped set up BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women) in May 2023, following Sarah Harding’s dying wish to find new ways of spotting the signs of breast cancer earlier and stop it cutting lives like hers short.   

Research is incredibly important in the fight against cancer. Although this research may not be in time to help me, this project is incredibly close to my heart as it may help women like me in the future.

- Sarah Harding

Sarah was just 39 years old when she died in September 2021. She was treated at The Christie hospital in Manchester. Her consultant there, Dr Sacha Howell, is BCAN-RAY’s lead researcher.  

“There are too many young women in their 30s, like Sarah, tragically dying from breast cancer,” explained Howell. “She was very keen for more research to be done to find out why they are being diagnosed despite no other family members having been affected by the disease.” 

Today, doctors use family history to decide whether or not to look for genetic changes that increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Still, most cases aren’t linked to these specific changes, or any family history of the disease.

BCAN-RAY is testing whether it’s possible to build a model for identifying women in their 30s who have an increased risk of developing breast cancer using a saliva test, a breast cancer risk factor questionnaire and a low-dose mammogram.

Howell and the other researchers on the project hope it will pave the way for all women to have a breast cancer risk assessment when they turn 30. At that point, women with an above-average risk could be given early access to surveillance mammograms to catch any potential cancers sooner.  

Sarah Harding
Sarah Harding

“The BCAN-RAY study is Sarah’s legacy and the first study of its kind for young women,” continued Howell. “Breast cancer is still the leading cause of death in women [between the ages of 35 and 49] and BCAN-RAY will help us identify those most at risk so we can offer them breast surveillance to detect cancers earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful.” 

A saliva test to understand breast cancer risk

BCAN-RAY’s saliva test can detect more than 300 subtle DNA changes that researchers think may be associated with breast cancer. By considering the types, numbers and patterns of these changes, researchers are working out how to generate personalised breast cancer risk scores.

Risks can also change depending on factors like a woman’s use of the contraceptive pill and how much alcohol they drink. BCAN-RAY’s researchers get that information from their breast cancer risk questionnaire.

Finally, the low-dose mammogram is used to check if women have dense tissue in their breasts. There’s some evidence to suggest that may increase breast cancer risk in women over 50. BCAN-RAY will help us understand how useful breast density is for working out breast cancer risks for women in their 30s.

BCAN-RAY so far

BCAN-RAY is being led by Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT).

It aims to recruit 1,000 women in their 30s with no family history of breast cancer. That will include 250 women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and 750 women who have not had breast cancer.  

So far, 363 women have joined the second group after being invited to do so by their GP. 172 of them have been for their breast cancer risk assessment.  

Of the 96 women who have already received their risk assessment results, 24, including Anna, might be at an ‘increased risk’ and have been invited for follow-ups with specialist centres like the Breast Cancer Family History Risk and Prevention Clinic at The Nightingale Centre, Wythenshawe Hospital, which is also part of MFT.  

“I have two young daughters, Lillian and Maddi, so the more things I can do to try and reduce my risk of developing breast cancer, the better,” said Anna. “Taking part in this research has been easy and the team at The Nightingale Centre has been great, and it’s reassuring to know that my full dose mammogram was clear.”  

From the 20 follow-up consultations that have happened so far, 10 women between 35 and 40 have already or will soon have their first mammograms. The other 10 will be invited to start mammograms when they reach 35.

Anna and her daughters, Lillian and Maddi
Anna and her daughters, Lillian and Maddi.

We’re helping fund BCAN-RAY as part of the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection. The other funders are the The Christie Charity Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal and The Shine Bright Foundation.

The study has also been made possible thanks to support from Sarah’s family, friends and Girls Aloud bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle and Nicola Roberts.

    Comments

  • Elizabeth Beckett Milnes
    4 June 2024

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 and had surgery during the pandemic. I had had yearly mammograms since the age of 42 on the advice of an experienced breast surgeon but the cancer did not show up on the mammogram because of my dense breast tissue. I sought advice on screening because my mother had breast cancer in her 40s. My cancer was detected via ultrasound. I believe that women with a family history of the disease should be able to have an ultrasound as part of their screening.

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    Comments

  • Elizabeth Beckett Milnes
    4 June 2024

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 and had surgery during the pandemic. I had had yearly mammograms since the age of 42 on the advice of an experienced breast surgeon but the cancer did not show up on the mammogram because of my dense breast tissue. I sought advice on screening because my mother had breast cancer in her 40s. My cancer was detected via ultrasound. I believe that women with a family history of the disease should be able to have an ultrasound as part of their screening.

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

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Read our comment policy.