Each year, leading scientists from across the globe gather at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago – the world’s largest cancer research conference, which sees key findings and ground-breaking advances in the field presented. This year, breast cancer prevention studies sparked the interest of attendees and the media and, of course, us at Prevent Breast Cancer.
A prominent study presented at the conference involved preventative drugs, one of our own pillars of research. The trial, involving 1,981 women, compared the effects of administering aromatase inhibitors – drugs that stop the body making oestrogen, which fuels 80 per cent of tumours – for 10 years after initial cancer treatment, compared to the usual five years. The results showed that the women who continued therapy for longer cut their risk of the cancer returning by a third.
Our director of scientific research, Professor Tony Howell, believes that these results are potentially revolutionary for secondary breast cancer prevention. This is because they may lead us to rethinking standard practice for this type of treatment on those with a high risk of developing the disease – as long as the side effects are limited.
Another area of investigation highlighted at the event was diet and lifestyle – another key area of our own research programme. A team of researchers from Italy presented their findings from a small study into the effects of a Mediterranean diet on breast cancer recurrence. The study, which looked at 307 women in remission from breast cancer over a period of three years, suggests that following a diet rich in vegetables, fish and olive oil, while keeping alcohol and red and processed meat to a minimum, helps lower the risk of breast cancer returning. The results showed that, during the three years, 11 of the 199 women who ate their normal diet suffered cancer again, while none of the 108 women who ate a Mediterranean diet experienced a relapse.
The results support a research project from last year, which showed that eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil was associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. Dr Michelle Harvie, co-author of The 2-Day Diet and research dietitian at Prevent Breast Cancer, commented: “The results of these studies are noteworthy and it would be useful to conduct them both again under more controlled circumstances and with larger sample sizes.”
Another study within the same field that was outlined at the conference was a large upcoming trial by Harvard Medical School into the effects of diet and lifestyle on breast cancer, with the researchers predicting that even small amounts of weight loss and moderate exercise can improve survival rates by more than 20 per cent. The team will study 13,200 women with breast cancer over two years, of whom half will be told to eat no more than 1,500 calories a day and exercise for half an hour five times a week.
Michelle said: “This will be a very important study and we expect it will complement existing findings that in heavier women and those who gain weight, breast cancer is more likely to return or spread. Our current B-AHEAD 2 study is taking this slightly further by looking into the effect of different methods of weight loss on, amongst other things, breast cancer recurrence. Crucially, it’s testing The 2-Day Diet in breast cancer patients to see if this may the best way for them to manage their weight, so it’ll be interesting to see how our results compare.”
The findings presented at ASCO this year bring us closer to a comprehensive understanding of how to predict and prevent breast cancer. With around one in nine women in the UK being affected by the disease at some point in their lives, it’s vital that Prevent Breast Cancer, as part of the research community, continues to take major steps towards protecting future generations.