BLOG: Why are more of us getting breast cancer?
Published 14 Oct 2016
Jo Churchill MP for Bury St Edmunds and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Breast Cancer tells of her battle with breast cancer and why she supports greater efforts to prevent the disease.
I was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 31 and then with breast cancer in my mid-forties. You could say that it was this journey with cancer, albeit not a very nice one, that made me want to become an MP.
I had access to some amazing support and will always be grateful to those that looked after me and got me through my illnesses. Once I started to get better, I wanted to give something back; to help others and to use my personal experience of the services and support available to patients to fight for better cancer outcomes.
Survival rates in this country have thankfully improved over the last decade. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer in women has increased from 53% during 1971-1972 to a predicted survival of 87% during 2010-2011(1). In part, this is due to greater awareness and swifter referral times which have led to earlier diagnoses; one of the best ways to improve cancer outcomes. Increasing investment into scientific research has also helped to advance treatments and bring positive benefits, to patients. Whilst I believe we can certainly achieve more, the outlook for cancer patients is better now, than it was ten years ago.
Yet in contrast, cancer incidence rates appear to be getting progressively worse. Breast cancer now accounts for 31.6% of all female cancer registrations and the number of cases have risen by 10%, since 2010(2). So the big question is, why are more of us getting breast cancer?
I was relatively fit and healthy when diagnosed; I was not overweight, did not smoke and breast fed my four children. I was what you might call ‘low risk’, so it is hard to understand what, if anything, I could have done differently. But it is also difficult to ignore the evidence that suggests that our susceptibility to breast cancer has grown with time, as well as with age. Those born after 1940 are more likely to get the disease than those born before(3) – suggesting that it could, in part, be the way we now live, that is making us more vulnerable to the disease.
The challenge is understanding what causes breast cancer or indeed any cancer. We do not yet have all of the answers and, I would contest, we do not necessarily ask the right questions. It is estimated that 20-30% of cases are due to genetic mutations and around 26% of cases are due to our lifestyle choices such as our weight, alcohol consumption and occupation. This means around 45% of breast cancer cases have unknown causes. We do know that oestrogen plays a key role, and that research shows that high levels of oestrogen in a woman’s body puts her at increased risk of getting breast cancer(4). Therefore could those chemicals which mimic oestrogen, chemicals found in certain pesticides and plastics, be increasing our risk of the disease?
My oncologist, on finding more pre-cancerous tumours in my other breast, said to me “it is luck, bad luck but just luck”. However, can we improve that luck by investing in broad based research to find out more about cancer and cancer prevention? Recently, only a small amount of research funding has been put towards identifying the environmental and lifestyle causes of breast cancers (just 1% of total research funding in 2014). By investing more, we may be able to work out what puts people at risk and what can be done to help reduce the numbers of people getting this disease.
Personally, one of the hardest things about having cancer was telling my family and friends – it has far reaching impacts on all those around you. Not least because as a mother, you want to do all you can to help prevent your children from becoming ill. But, in order to do this, we have to better understand the risk factors for breast cancer, genetic links and lifestyle factors amongst others. That’s why I support Breast Cancer UK’s Prevention Week; so we can help to prevent this disease, reduce the number of people that are so profoundly affected by it and potentially eradicate it in the future.
Jo Churchill MP for Bury St Edmunds and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Breast Cancer.
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(2) Cancer Registration Statistics, England: 2014: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/datasets/cancerregistrationstatisticscancerregistrationstatisticsengland accessed 270516
(3) King et al. (2003). Breast and ovarian cancer risks due to inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2. Science 302(5645): 643-646
(4) Travis, R. C. and Key, T. J. (2003). Oestrogen exposure and breast cancer risk. Breast Cancer Research 5: 239-247. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC314432/