When looking at the incidence of breast cancer worldwide, there’s been a gradual increase in the number of cases as well as the incidence rates -new cases detected out of every 100,000 inhabitants- in practically all regions of the planet. This increase is likely due to two factors: population aging and ever earlier diagnoses. However, the number of deaths has stabilized in countries such as Spain, where survival reaches 85%, thanks to the use of more effective treatments and early detection.
These great results incite optimism and that’s why people in all fields are calling upon governments and institutions to become more involved in cancer research and thus be able to improve the prognostics even more. As would be logical, this research must focus not only on treatments but also on identifying and anticipating the cause of the disease before it appears which often leads to the eternal question... Is it possible to prevent breast cancer?
Breast cancer prevention is currently rather complex. Nonetheless, several recent studies have linked a series of factors such as doing regular physical exercise -at least 4 hours a week-, maintaining an appropriate weight to avoid becoming overweight or obese -especially after menopause- and low alcohol consumption with a lower risk of getting this disease.
Moreover, various epidemiological studies have concluded that hormone replacement therapy during menopause is associated with an increased risk of getting breast cancer meaning it’s incredibly important to keep all of these factors in mind in order to reduce the risks to the extent possible.
Yet there’s no doubt the key to fighting this disease fundamentally focuses on two areas: on the one hand, early diagnosis and enhancing the different techniques that make it possible; and, on the other, the evolution of treatments and their personalization as per each patient’s own needs.
Spreading awareness among society and particularly among women is essential to achieving widespread early detection of breast cancer. To this end, campaigns aiming to make women aware of and mobilize them around the importance of self-exams and scheduling annual check-ups have had an immensely positive impact on early diagnosis. This is undoubtedly fundamental to extending survival expectancy.
However, at a time of such healthcare uncertainty as we are now seeing, many appointments and check-ups considered “non-essential” or “urgent” are being postponed due to the saturation of our healthcare centers and at the initiative of patients themselves. Despites the situation, people must understand that, where possible, it is absolutely important for no woman to let her guard down and that everyone continue to pay attention to this health issue.
Added to this awareness are all the major advances in science in recent years in prevention and diagnostics such as “genetic markers” through laboratory testing which is capable of identifying changes in genetic material -DNA, RNA- present in samples from patients with breast tumors. These genetic studies also help identify the women with the greatest risk of developing the disease well in advance in a view to monitoring such cases more closely and even assessing the suitability of therapy before it appears.
Technological progress has also made possible the evolution of diagnostic techniques based on the analysis of medical imagery and the use of artificial intelligence techniques and systems which are able to localize any anomaly much more precisely. This offers healthcare professionals significant diagnostic support. For example, one recent research project published in the journal Nature explains how the algorithm of one of these systems could provide better X-ray reading results than radiologists in addition to ignoring “false positives”.
Beyond early diagnosis, progress in the development of personalized treatments that adapt to each case and each patient have become a priority. Precision medicine means each woman can be treated in a personalized manner based on the genomic and molecular characteristics of her specific tumor which is one of the major revolutions in this field because each patient thus receives the most ideal treatment for her own individual situation.
For this reason, much of the research currently underway aims to produce more effective and personalized treatments. Just to get an idea, clinical trials seeking to find medication against breast cancer are costly: approximately 2.4 billion euros is the figure a pharmaceutical company must pay in order to complete the development process as per data from Efe Salud.
Considering this, the implication of governments and administrations around the globe is determinant in setting common goals and attaining satisfactory results with all the different projects. One of the public health priorities of the European Union is the fight against cancer and, more specifically, breast cancer which affects more than 400,000 people each year in its member countries. Such is the case that one of the five areas of the Horizon Europe mission set to begin in 2021 is specifically dedicated to cancer. It will focus on countries joining efforts so more people can live cancer-free and more patients may be diagnosed even earlier and suffer less with a better quality of life post-treatment.
The European Union investment aims to make possible the development of research by the best experts in the field to enhance diagnostics and implement new treatments after having earmarked more than 536 million euros since 2007 specifically for research into early diagnosis and breast cancer treatments. Likewise, it has set up the European Commission Initiative Against Breast Cancer (ECIBC) to develop a series of common guidelines to improve treatments in the European Union with 35 countries participating. Moreover, the quick sharing of new findings and improvements in specialized breast cancer units and among doctors have improved quality of life for patients.
In short, the results prove that it is essential to find means for cooperation among institutions - both public as well as private- and among countries to be able to continue moving forward with research that enables early diagnosis and the development of personalized treatments. All of this will determine whether more and more women are able to overcome breast cancer and enjoy a better quality of life.