Breast cancer survivor guides a national research program

22,700 Canadian women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012

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Two years ago, Alicia Tait sat in a meeting room with a group of funders and researchers sharing her story of what it’s like to be 23 and diagnosed with breast cancer. She hoped they’d have a better understanding of what women like her experience. Through early detection and screening, Alicia was among the 22,700 Canadian women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012.

Alicia says that her diagnosis was a shock and sent her mind spinning. “I had a four-month-old daughter,” she says.  “It raised the question of if I’d even be around to raise my daughter. Would I be able to graduate university, start a career in teaching, and grow old with my husband?  Would I be able to grow old at all?”

The 28-year-old mother of two children has since graduated university and completed teacher’s college. “A cancer diagnosis at such a young age raises many questions about the future,” she says. “You worry whether you’ll be able to conceive another child. These are unique challenges when you’re this young.”

About 4 per cent of newly diagnosed cases of breast cancer will be in women under 40. Breast cancer in younger women tends to be more advanced at the time of diagnosis as well as more aggressive and resistant to treatment. As a result, prognosis is generally worse for this age group. Many questions remain but there is much hope for newly diagnosed cancer patients, like Alicia.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) are funding a $5.7M research project to study 1,200 newly diagnosed young women with all stages of breast cancer receiving care in 28 institutions across Canada. Led by Dr. Steven Narod, Canada Research Chair in Breast Cancer at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, the research teams across Canada aim to better understand the unique biology of breast cancer in women under 40 and its implications for prevention, risk reduction, and delivering care that addresses their distinct needs.

The researchers will also assemble a database of 3,000 young women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in order to assess long term outcomes related to recurrence and survival.  In this largest ever Canadian breast cancer in young women research program, women like Alicia will also gain a network that will provide them with additional support through their breast cancer journey.

Breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer among Canadian women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers) and is the second leading cause of death from cancer. Research efforts play an important role in women’s health and wellbeing and this project will result in real improvements for the young women who will face this diagnosis.