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The Breakthrough Generations Study was set up in 2004 to help understand the causes of breast cancer – at the moment, we don’t know why one woman will develop the disease while another won’t. This is an enormous project following more than 115,000 UK women for 40 years.
The women taking part all fill out a detailed questionnaire giving details of their lifestyle, including diet, alcohol intake and even the kind of jobs they do. They also give blood samples to provide information about their genetics.The study will investigate the genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that may change the risk of a woman developing breast cancer. Identifying these factors and how they combine together to cause breast cancer will enable women to receive accurate advice about their best preventative steps. We will also be able to identify women who are at high risk of developing the disease and offer tailored information on their risk.
Ultimately, we hope new ways to prevent breast cancer can be created so that fewer women develop the disease.One of the strengths of the study is that participants are of all different ages and backgrounds. For example, Caroline and Sarah Holmes and Judith Cooper are three generations of the same family all taking part. Since joining the study mother Caroline and grandmother Judith have both been diagnosed with the disease.
Sarah Holmes said: “Since my mum and grandma have had breast cancer, I think it is hugely important to determine the causes of any kind of cancer as it causes chaos in the lives of people affected. I am also very interested in finding out if there are any ways my sister and I can reduce the risk of getting cancer when we are older."
”The study has already published important results on the age women go through menarche (age of first period) and menopause. Both can slightly alter a woman’s risk of the disease. It is results like these that hopefully explain why breast cancer incidence continues to rise. The hope is that the Breakthrough Generations Study will provide us with information to identify high-risk women and develop strategies to prevent the disease.
Much of the analysis of the study is carried out by Professor Anthony Swerdlow and Doctors Nick Orr, Olivia Fletcher and Montserrat Garcia-Closas at The Institute of Cancer Research. The study is led by Professors Swerdlow and Alan Ashworth.