Dr Michelle Harvie is an award-winning research dietitian funded by Prevent Breast Cancer. She’s been a leader in her field for well over 20 years and has had her findings published in many major scientific journals. We caught up with her to find out what she gets up to day to day and how it’s helping our fight to prevent breast cancer.
What type of research do you carry out at Prevent Breast Cancer?
My research looks at how we can prevent breast cancer and its recurrence through our diet, physical activity and weight control. It’s an incredibly varied role and involves studying large populations, what happens within breast cells when people diet and how we can help people change their behaviour.
What are the particular areas you’re looking into at the moment? How might this eventually help with breast cancer prediction and prevention?
Right now, I’m investigating how we can help women at increased risk of breast cancer adhere to an optimal lifestyle to reduce their risk. We’re testing how effective a dietitian call centre would be in helping women across the country to follow a healthy diet and become more active, and therefore lose weight, which we know can significantly reduce a woman’s chances of developing the disease. If successful, this could lead the way as a national call centre to support high-risk women.
What fascinates you so much about diet and lifestyle’s effect on breast cancer?
Studies shows us that 30 per cent of breast cancers are strongly linked to diet and lifestyle factors, such as weight, diet and physical activity, so it’s an extremely important area of research. If we can work out the optimal lifestyle and ways to help people stick to this, we can prevent a large proportion of breast cancer diagnoses.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I really enjoy making a difference – whether that’s on a personal level when one of our research participants does really well on a diet, or more widely when advances in our research help to change medical practice and move us all close to the goal of making breast cancer a preventable disease.
Have you had any particular career highlights?
Developing The 2-Day Diet with Professor Tony Howell was a major highlight. It was a huge breakthrough both for us and the countless successful dieters who have adopted it and now live healthier, lower-risk lifestyles.
If you weren’t in this profession, what would you be doing?
I’m not sure exactly, but whatever it was, I’d like it to involve being outdoors and keeping active – if I could do my job from the hills rather than my desk, I would!
What would be your main message to women – and men – to help them reduce their risk of getting breast cancer?
Watch out for ‘weight creep’ as you get older. Weight gain significantly increases our risk of breast cancer – and 10 other cancers, as well as other common diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and dementia. The next generation need to try to keep on track and not to put on weight. While weight gain appears to be the norm as we get older, it’s not because it’s inevitable – it’s due to the bad habits typical of our Western lifestyles, which we have the power to change.