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To save lives through improving early
diagnosis, developing new treatments and
preventing all types of breast cancer

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Our story

In 1989, at its inception, Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s target was to raise £15 million to build a dedicated breast cancer research centre. Fast forward to today and Breakthrough funds nearly 25 per cent of all breast cancer research in the UK. This work focuses on developing a deep understanding of the disease which is essential to finding new ways of diagnosing, treating and preventing breast cancer.

Today, Breakthrough’s ambition is clear – as a result of our work, women will no longer die from breast cancer. Here, we trace Breakthrough’s history and look at the impact our work has had for women affected by breast cancer.

It’s 1986 and more than 26,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK

In 1986, actress Toby Robins died of breast cancer aged just 55. She didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke, she had the best care possible but still she died. Her husband Bill Freedman could not accept that.

He spoke to surgeons, clinicians, scientists and breast cancer specialists and was amazed to learn that there was no dedicated breast cancer research centre in the UK at that time; nowhere where scientists and breast cancer specialists could work together under one roof with the ambition of beating breast cancer. Bill and his family decided to put that right.

In 1989, Bill started Breakthrough Breast Cancer and set about trying to raise the money to make his dream a reality. The cost of building the research centre was £15 million – so the fundraising appeal began.

It’s 1990, and nearly 27,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK

In 1990, young businesswoman Mary-Jean Mitchell Green died of breast cancer aged just 38, leaving behind a husband, Peter, and two young sons. When she knew she didn’t have long to live, she created a foundation to fund breast cancer research. The sum of £1.3 million was given by Peter and her sons.

The Breakthrough £1,000 Challenge – which asked 15,000 people to raise £1,000 – was launched with the aim of raising £15 million. Avon Cosmetics – Breakthrough’s longest-running corporate supporter – launched its Breast Cancer Crusade and raised £1 million for Breakthrough in just one day.

It’s 1995, and nearly 30,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK

Countless companies, individuals, trusts and celebrities pulled together to carry on raising funds. Breakthrough launched Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and the t-shirt became a powerful statement in the fight against the disease by raising more than £400,000.

It’s 1999, and nearly 35,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK

We made it – £15 million was raised! In 1999, The Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre, housed in the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Building at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), next to the Royal Marsden Hospital, was opened by our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales.

Since 1999 the impact of our work for women affected by breast cancer has been outstanding

Some of our breakthroughs include:

  • We have discovered how some breast cancers grow, so we have developed a potential new drug treatment that slows tumour growth.
  • We are discovering how some tumours become resistant to drugs used as treatments. Drug resistance is one of the leading causes of death from the disease.
  • For women with a family history of breast cancer we discovered that cancer cells with faulty BRCA genes are sensitive to a drug known as a PARP inhibitor. The drug targets tumours directly while leaving healthy cells alone, so patients have fewer side effects. Our discovery has led to more than 40 clinical trials worldwide and brings in a new era in precise targeted treatments.
  • We have launched the Breakthrough Generations Study, the UK’s largest and most comprehensive study into finding the causes of breast cancer. The study includes more than 100,000 women providing information over 40 years so we can understand the effects of genetic, environmental, behavioural and hormonal factors. This will result in the most complete and reliable information on why women develop breast cancer. We have also launched the biggest study into the causes of male breast cancer.
  • We were aware that some women were waiting up to 18 weeks to receive their diagnosis of breast cancer. So our Left in the Dark campaign secured a commitment from the Government of a maximum two-week wait from referral to first hospital appointment for everyone with breast problems.
  • We promote the signs and symptoms of breast cancer to women through our TLC – Touch Look Check health promotion message. Working with the media and healthcare professionals our message reaches three quarters of the UK’s population. We have also developed the UK’s first breast awareness app – iBreastCheck, which has been downloaded by more than 30,000 people.

Today, around 50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK

Despite our successes, we still have far to go on the journey to stop women dying from breast cancer. Being able to build on and continue our work is a critical part of the journey.

  • If we are able to combine knowledge of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that cause breast cancer we could reduce the number of women being diagnosed with breast cancer by as much as 50%.
  • If we ensure every woman knows the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and seeks prompt advice, we will greatly reduce the number of advanced cases of the disease, saving up to 1,000 lives a year.
  • If we continue to look for new ways of developing and delivering treatments and care, we will be able to ensure women receive personalised treatments tailored to their circumstances. Women might no longer suffer the side effects of treatments and they will know their treatment will be successful.
  • If we continue to be the voice of women affected by breast cancer, many thousands of women will receive services and care based on and meeting their needs.
  • If we continue our work for women with a family history of breast cancer we could be able to develop a preventative drug treatment. Currently the only method of prevention available for women involves undergoing the drastic surgery of a double mastectomy.

Our work is only possible due to the generosity of the public – all the money we receive is donated. We need to raise £20 million a year and with commitment and support, we’re confident that we can stop women dying from some types of breast cancer within the next ten years. Within 20 years, this could also be true of most kinds of breast cancer. The only thing that can stop this happening is lack of funds.