New Blood Test May “Predict” Breast Cancer – 20 Years in Advance
Now there’s a headline that grabs your attention, right? And the media has jumped all over this “new” discovery, outlined in a study presented yesterday at the annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research in Anaheim, CA. But is this “new news” – or simply reinforcing what savvy breast cancer survivors have known all along?
If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you very quickly get up to speed on what might have caused it.
After all, as women, aren’t we used to being responsible – and often, for taking the blame?
Your child isn’t reading up to grade level: must be mom’s fault, for not reading to her more as an infant.
Or, more commonly, there’s no milk in the fridge. Or the car is out of gas. Or someone forgot to send Grandma a birthday card.
Your fault, right?
Thus, a breast cancer diagnosis, the most personal of all “faults,” is an opportunity to look back and say, “What could I have done differently to avoid this?”
And the answer, probably 80% of the time, is “not a blessed thing” – given the knowledge most women have about the disease.
Breast cancer is an equal opportunity destroyer. Sure, some of us have a family history, but beyond that – how many know that being as little as 20 pounds overweight, or drinking a bit too much, or taking birth control pills for long stretches, or having babies later in life (and then not breast feeding), all raise the risk of breast cancer?
A blood test that could predict just how great a woman’s risk is of being diagnosed with postmenopausal breast cancer (far and away the most common kind), up to 20 years before that risk becomes acute, would give women the opportunity to assess other possible risk factors – and deal with them, while there’s still time.
And just what does this blood test assess?
Hormone levels. It’s common knowledge that elevated levels of sex hormones – particularly estrogen – raises your risk of breast cancer. So it makes sense that knowing your hormone level as you go through life might be useful.
In the long-term study released yesterday, led by Dr. Xuehong Zhang of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, women had their blood tested, and then were assigned to four groups based on their hormone levels.
At 10 and then 20 years after the blood test, women in the top group – those with the highest hormone levels – were 50% to 107% more likely to have been diagnosed with postmenopausal breast cancer than those with the lowest hormone levels.
Which makes sense. About 80% of breast cancers are hormone-dependent, needing sex hormones to survive and thrive. So the more available these hormones are, the more likely any potential breast cancer will progress from dormant to full-blown disease.
Many of those other risk factors (being overweight, using birth control, getting pregnant late, use of alcohol) increase the effect of sex hormones in your blood – which is why they raise breast cancer risk.
What if you knew, early on, that your hormone levels were naturally higher than average, and thus you should be extra-careful about weight gain, and drinking too much? And that maybe you should schedule having your family sooner rather than later?
Useful information, right?
Dr. Zhang and colleagues caution that the study’s results are preliminary, and that more work needs to be done before doctors start adding sex hormones to the array of levels already covered in a regular screening blood test.
But there may come a day when you track your sex hormone level as closely as you do your cholesterol and blood sugar levels – and for the same reason:
Preventive medicine. Knowledge is power, and knowing you’re at increased risk for breast cancer is certainly a powerful impetus to keep those hormone levels in check via diet, exercise, and other simple lifestyle changes.
Gray, B. (2012, October 18). Blood test may help define breast cancer risk in older women. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/10/18/blood-test-may-help-define-breast-cancer-risk-in-older-women?vwo=501cd