A groundbreaking cancer research project launched in memory of the late Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding, is already successfully identifying young women at increased risk of breast cancer after just one year of opening.
The study known as BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Younger Women) was set up in May 2023 following Sarah’s dying wish to find new ways to spot the signs of the disease earlier and stop it cutting lives like hers short.
Sarah was just 39 years old when she died in September 2021, having been treated at The Christie hospital in Manchester.
BCAN-RAY is one of the first research studies in the world to identify new ways to predict the risk of younger women getting breast cancer. Led by Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT), the study has been made possible by funding from The Christie Charity Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal, Cancer Research UK and The Shine Bright Foundation, with support from Sarah’s family, friends and Girls Aloud bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle and Nicola Roberts.
39-year-old physiotherapist and mother of two, Anna Housley from Hale in South Manchester is one of the women who took part in the BCAN-RAY study in summer 2023 at The Nightingale Centre, Wythenshawe Hospital, part of MFT after receiving an invitation from her GP.
Following her appointment, Anna received her breast cancer risk letter which found she was at ‘increased risk’ of developing breast cancer and was invited to attend the Breast Cancer Family History Risk and Prevention Clinic at The Nightingale Centre to discuss her results and options for early screening and preventative treatment.
Anna’s risk assessment found small genetic markers in her saliva sample, and her low dose mammogram (which uses less than 10% of the radiation dose of a standard mammogram) showed high-density breast tissue, which are some of the risk factors most commonly found in women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Following her risk feedback, Anna was found to be eligible to have yearly mammograms and she had her first standard mammogram last month which was clear. Anna will continue to be invited yearly for screening.
Anna said: “Nobody wants to be told they are at increased risk of developing cancer, so it was a bit of a shock. But I was also very thankful that I had been identified because if I hadn’t been part of this study, I would have never known.
“I have two young daughters, Lillian aged seven years old and Maddi five years old, so the more things I can do to try and reduce my risk of developing breast cancer, the better. Taking part in this research has been easy and the team at The Nightingale Centre has been great, and it’s reassuring to know that my full dose mammogram was clear.
“I wanted to be part of this research so that we can improve diagnosis and treatment for future generations, and if my participation in this study can help with advancing this research, then that’s a really great thing to be part of.”
To date the BCAN-RAY study has recruited 363 women aged between 30 and 39 years old. 172 of them have been through their risk assessment appointments; 96 have been given their risks – 24 were found as ‘increased’ with 72 as ‘average’. 20 women have now had telephone consultations and of those, eight – who are between the ages 35-40 – have already had their first mammograms, and two more women are scheduled for theirs imminently.
The other 10 women will start screening between the ages of 35-40 years when they reach the 3% 10-year risk threshold, in line with National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines.
Participants are asked to complete a breast cancer risk factor questionnaire, provide a saliva sample for genetic testing and have a low dose mammogram to measure their breast tissue density.
Researchers hope their findings will enable all women to have a risk assessment for breast cancer when they reach the age of 30.
Those women identified at increased risk will have access to early screening and opportunities for prevention, to reduce the chances of them developing and potentially dying from the disease.
More than 300 subtle changes in DNA associated with breast cancer can be identified through the saliva test and the study team are working with collaborators at Cambridge University to generate personalised risk scores for each participant.
Risk predictions are overlayed with some other lifestyle factors such as when a woman’s periods started, alcohol consumption, the use of the contraceptive pill and their age when having children.
The density of the breast tissue could also play a part in the level of risk of getting the disease.
Dr Sacha Howell from The University of Manchester, The Christie hospital and MFT is leading on the BCAN-RAY study and was also Sarah Harding’s consultant.
Dr Howell said: “There are too many young women in their 30s, like Sarah, tragically dying from breast cancer. She was very keen for more research to be done to find out why they are being diagnosed despite no other family members having been affected by the disease. Sarah spoke to me many times about this during her own treatment.
“The BCAN-RAY study is Sarah’s legacy and the first study of its kind for young women which is helping us find out how we can more accurately identify those who may develop breast cancer. It is still the leading cause of death in women under 50 and BCAN-RAY will help us identify those most at risk so we can offer them breast screening to detect cancers earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful.”


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