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This page was published on 13/07/2007
Published: 13/07/2007


Published: 13 July 2007  
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Science in society  |  Health & life sciences


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Odds of beating breast cancer hinge on family connection

There was a time when people thought that breast cancer affected the lives only of older women. Developments in cancer research have shown that this is not the case. While the risk of breast cancer increases as people get older, this harrowing disease can affect people who are even in their late twenties. Now comes news that while the chances of developing breast cancer are to some degree inherited, chances of survival also run in the family. The latest online journal Breast Cancer Research suggests that if a woman succumbs to breast cancer, her daughters or sisters are over 60% more likely to die within five years if they are also affected by the disease.

A mother’s ability to fight cancer passed to daughter, European research shows.  © Matt+
A mother’s ability to fight cancer passed to daughter, European research shows.
An international research team, headed by Mikael Hartman from the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute, used a sample taken from the Swedish Multi-Generation Register. The sample was comprised of 2 787 mother-daughter pairs and 831 sister pairs – all women who were diagnosed with breast cancer from the period 1961-2001.

The research showed that the prognosis of a woman's breast cancer can actually predict the survival of her first-degree relatives who have also succumbed to this disease. For mothers who were able to beat cancer after five years, their daughters have a 91% chance of surviving the disease. Unfortunately, this figure drops to 87% for those whose mothers had died within five years.

With respect to the sister pairs, the research indicated that a sister of a woman who had died of breast cancer after five years has an 88% chance of trouncing this disease, whereas the chances for those whose sisters died within the critical five-year period stood at 70%. The research team showed that on the whole a poor prognosis for a woman gave first-degree relatives a 60%-80% higher chance of breast cancer mortality within the first five years.

The research team suggested that because access to healthcare in the Nordic state is good irrespective of socioeconomic status, the findings are unlikely to be biased. Genetics and other risk factors, including hormone replacement therapy, can likely influence the rate and outcome of breast cancer. For his part, Dr Hartman said the findings are 'relevant to women with newly diagnosed breast cancer', and to those treating them. The researchers will now focus their work on uncovering what is inherited: is it tumour biology, response to therapy or vigilance of the immune system.

From a European perspective, previous research shows that the regions reporting highest incidence of breast cancer are western and northern Europe, while the rates are lower in southern and eastern Europe. Women living in western Europe have a 60% greater chance of getting breast cancer compared to those in eastern Europe, for example.

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Breast Cancer Research journal
Health research in FP7

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