A new study by British and Canadian researchers identifies breast cancer as not one, but ten diseases. Researchers analyzed the way genes and tumor cells changed when cells became cancerous and concluded that all the different types of genetic changes could be grouped into 10 categories. This means the disease currently understood as “breast cancer” is in actual fact 10 different diseases.
This is important information for women with and at risk of breast cancer and underscores our work to challenge the way mainstream medical practitioners, researchers, breast health establishments and advocacy groups currently think about this disease. However, the degree to which this new study impacts current practices in breast cancer will determine just how groundbreaking the new findings turn out to be.
Understanding breast cancer as many diseases rather than one disease means that we can no longer continue with a business as usual approach—for a start, there is no one cure to be found. The findings of this study open the door to a possibility for real change. For example, we cannot continue to insist on standardized screening and diagnostic technologies, and we have to begin to address over-treatment so that countless women aren’t forced to go through the painful rigors of unnecessary surgery and treatments. And we must continue to demand regulatory changes that prevent women from getting sick in the first place.
We need individualized treatment plans that correspond to the type of cancer diagnosed rather than the systemically prescribed one-treatment-fits-all approach. And we need to put as much energy into prevention as we put into the search for a cure.
However, this study raises so many questions: are all subtypes of cancer fatal? For those types of cancer that aren’t fatal, how do we stop them from developing in the first place rather than turning breast cancer into a ‘manageable’ disease? How will this affect women currently in treatment? How will this impact a woman currently in the midst of a diagnosis? If this research opens the door to personalized medicine as researchers claim it will —will personalized medicine be available to everyone or only those who can afford it? How will insurance companies work to accommodate personalized medicine? And will our government stop allowing patents on our genes so it’s actually possible to have information about our own genetic makeup? And these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Without question BCAction welcomes the findings of this study; however, of greater importance to all of us are the changes they can create. And we so desperately need change for those currently living with breast cancer and we need change to prevent future generations from developing the disease in the first place.