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Our impact on breast cancer

Breast cancer progress 240pxWe're fighting over 200 cancers, and breast cancer is in our sights. Every single pound donated helps fund our groundbreaking research, bringing closer the day when all cancers will be cured.

Thousands of UK women - and hundreds of men - are now breast cancer survivors thanks to advances in research. We have been at the heart of this progress and continue to be a major funder of breast cancer research, working towards a day when we beat breast cancer. For good.

Our work has underpinned today’s treatments for the disease and helped save thousands of lives. Eight out of 10 women now survive breast cancer for more than five years, compared with five out of 10 women in the 1970s. And the chances of long-term survival are improving all the time.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, here are just some of the ways our scientists, doctors and nurses have made a difference to people with breast cancer. And we continue to fund pioneering research today, helping even more people beat the disease.

Our researchers are heroes. Find out how your donation could support their pioneering, life-saving work.

Here are just a few examples of our progress.

Revealing genetic risks

At its heart, cancer is a disease caused by faulty genes. Over the years, our researchers have led the world in discovering many of the genes involved in breast cancer, including BRCA2. Inheriting a faulty version of one or more of these can increase the risk of developing the disease for both women and men.

Scientists and doctors are now using this knowledge to identify and advise those at greatest risk, target screening more effectively and design more effective ways to prevent and treat breast cancer. Thousands of women with a strong family history of the disease now benefit from these discoveries.

In 2012, an international team of scientists - led by researchers at our Cambridge Research Institute - discovered that breast cancers can be divided up into ten different subtypes, depending on the genetic makeup of the tumour. This was a hugely significant step forward in our understanding of the disease, and will help to shape the way that people are diagnosed and treated in the future. 

Understanding lifestyle factors

Thanks to our work, we understand many of the lifestyle factors that can affect the risk of breast cancer. Research like this helps us to provide accurate information, empowering people to make important choices about their life and health.

By funding some of the largest studies in the world - such as the Million Women Study and EPIC – we’ve revealed ways to help women reduce their risk of the disease. For example, our researchers discovered that hormone replacement therapy1, obesity2 and drinking excessive alcohol3 can increase the risk of breast cancer, while physical activity4 can cut the risk.

Improving screening and awareness

Breast screening saves lives. Our association with breast screening spans over 40 years, and our work contributed to the development and improvement of the UK’s national breast screening programme.

In particular, we showed that two X-rays were better than one at detecting cancers5, leading to a widespread change in practice. And more recently a Cancer Research UK study showed that computer software could help read mammograms, freeing up vital NHS staff time and relieving pressure on services.

However, breast screening is not perfect. Along with the Government, Cancer Research UK commissioned a review of the evidence around breast screening after concerns were raised that women were being told a lot about the benefits of screening and not enough about the possible harm. The results of the review were published in 2012, showing that although screening saves 1,300 lives every year in the UK, around 4,000 women are treated for breast cancers that may never have caused them a problem. You can find out more about what the findings of the breast screening review mean for womenon our website.

We were also pioneers in promoting breast awareness – encouraging women to be aware of changes in their breasts that might be signs of cancer to help diagnose the disease earlier. It was thanks to the work of our researcher Joan Austoker that ‘breast awareness’ became standard policy, not just in the UK but in many other countries too.

Lifesaving drugs

Our work lies behind many of the drugs that are used to treat breast cancer today, from their early origins in the lab to testing in large-scale studies. And our researchers analysed huge amounts of data from global trials that have shaped the treatment of breast cancer worldwide.

In the 1980s and 90s we funded many important clinical trials of tamoxifen6, a drug that has saved thousands of lives. We also supported pioneering trials of hormone-blocking drugs called aromatase inhibitors7, offering women with breast cancer more options for treatment.

By studying the biology of breast cancer cells, our scientists paved the way for the development of trastuzumab (Herceptin). And we supported the recruitment of UK women onto a major clinical trial of the drug.8

Vital radiotherapy research

As well as developing new drugs for breast cancer, we have helped to improve radiotherapy, a vital but often-overlooked treatment for the disease. Our research in the 1970s showed that radiotherapy could help prevent breast cancer from coming back9. Thirty years later, we supported the follow-up showing that radiotherapy significantly increases long-term survival from the disease10.

Over the years, we have helped refine the use of radiotherapy. For example, the START trial showed that fewer, larger doses of radiotherapy are just as effective at treating early breast cancer as the standard routine11. This means fewer trips to hospital and fewer reported side effects.

Communicating with patients

Cancer can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. As far back as the 1970s, we were the first organisation to fund work looking at the psychological impact of breast cancer and its treatment, helping to improve the quality of life for people with the disease.

And our researchers later developed specialised communication courses to help doctors and nurses talk with patients about their disease. These are now used across the country for the benefit of people with all types of cancer, including breast cancer.

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  1. Beral et al, Breast cancer and hormone-replacement therapy in the Million Women Study. Lancet. 2003 Aug 9;362(9382):419-27.
  2. Lahmann et al, Body size and breast cancer risk: findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer And Nutrition (EPIC). Int J Cancer. 2004 Sep 20;111(5):762-71.
  3. Tjønneland et al, Alcohol intake and breast cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). Cancer Causes Control. 2007 May;18(4):361-73.
  4. Lahmann et al, Physical activity and breast cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2007 Jan;16(1):36-42.
  5. Wald et al, UKCCCR multicentre randomised controlled trial of one and two view mammography in breast cancer screening.BMJ. 1995 Nov 4;311(7014):1189-93
  6. Early Breast Cancer Trialists' Collaborative Group, Tamoxifen for early breast cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(1):CD000486.
  7. ATACATAC Trialists' Group, Effect of anastrozole and tamoxifen as adjuvant treatment for early-stage breast cancer: 100-month analysis of the ATAC trial. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Jan;9(1):45-53.
  8. Piccart-Gebhart et al, Trastuzumab after adjuvant chemotherapy in HER2-positive breast cancer. N Engl J Med. 2005 Oct 20;353(16):1659-72.
  9. Cancer research campaign (King's/Cambridge) trial for early breast cancer. A detailed update at the tenth year. Cancer Research Campaign Working Party. Lancet. 1980 Jul 12;2(8185):55-60.
  10. Early Breast Cancer Trialists' Group, Effects of radiotherapy and of differences in the extent of surgery for early breast cancer on local recurrence and 15-year survival: an overview of the randomised trials. Lancet. 2005 Dec 17;366(9503):2087-106.
  11. Hopwood et al,Comparison of patient-reported breast, arm, and shoulder symptoms and body image after radiotherapy for early breast cancer: 5-year follow-up in the randomised Standardisation of Breast Radiotherapy (START) trials. Lancet Oncol. 2010 Mar;11(3):231-40.
Updated: 6 July 2010