2010 President's Report

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How can we develop interventions that help prevent breast cancer? NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT BREAST CANCER MAY YIELD NEW WAYS OF LIVING.

With more than 200,000 women in the United States diagnosed with breast cancer every year, Michigan State University scientists aren’t just searching for preventative measures. They’re also searching for new ways of thinking about the disease.

“We need to take a more nuanced look at breast cancer,” says Ellen Velie, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology in MSU’s College of Human Medicine. “Breast cancer is often studied as one disease, but risk factors differ based on types of tumors. If we think of it as different diseases, we may see things more clearly.”

In an effort to make sense of this complex cancer, Velie assembled a transdisciplinary, multi-site team that was awarded $14 million by the National Institutes of Health to identify risk factors for breast cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 49—a traditionally underrepresented group in breast cancer research—focusing on early life growth, lifetime diet, physical activity, and body size.

Through the Young Women’s Health History Study—which includes the largest sample in the United States of black women younger than 50 diagnosed with breast cancer—Velie and her team will study 4,000 women with and without breast cancer who are from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. They will try to determine why young black women and, potentially, poorer women are at increased risk for developing tumors with the worst prognosis.

The five-year study, which will link both biological and social nutritional determinants of breast cancer over a woman’s lifetime, also will try to determine why women develop tumors with specific characteristics.

According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 44,000 women under the age of 50 are newly diagnosed with invasive breast cancer each year, making this the most common cancer occurring in women in that age group.

“It’s a substantial fraction of all breast cancers,” says Velie. “But because breast cancer is less common in younger women, it hasn’t been studied as much.”

While fewer women under 50 are diagnosed with breast cancer, the stakes are high.

“The types of breast tumors that occur in younger women are often more difficult to treat and are more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, which further contributes to worse prognoses,” says Velie.

To make things trickier, risk factors affect breast tumor risk differently at various life stages. For example, for breast cancer that occurs in women under age 50, childhood obesity appears to be associated with a lower risk for more treatable breast tumors but a higher risk for less treatable tumors. For breast cancer occurring after age 50, obesity appears to increase risk for all types of tumors.

“There weren’t the rates of obesity in young girls a generation ago, so that’s something that will be important to look at,” says Velie. “When this study is finished, we hope to provide information that, combined with findings from other studies, will inform the public about lifetime nutritional factors that may reduce risk for breast cancer.”

While a cure may be a long way off, efforts like this to examine potentially modifiable factors over a woman’s lifetime could change the way we think about—and prevent—breast cancer. Call it groundbreaking research—not to mention something to live for.

For more information:

Ellen Velie

College of Human Medicine

Young Women’s Health History Study

This research is supported by the National Institutes of Health.