Cancer Types | Breast Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of women each year. Although it’s rare, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. With breast cancer continuing to impact so many people, it’s important to understand the disease and what strides researchers are making.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 284,200 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, and an estimated 44,130 deaths will occur.
  • More than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors live in the U.S. today.
  • The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer in the U.S. is about 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 833 for men.
  • Research shows only 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary.
  • Dense breasts can be 1.5 to 2 times more likely to develop cancer. If you have dense breasts, ask your doctor about extra screening tests, like ultrasound or MRI, to check for tumors that a mammography might have missed.
  • Triple-negative breast cancer differs from other types of invasive breast cancer as they grow and spread faster, have limited treatment options, and a worse prognosis (outcome).
  • A lump isn’t the only sign of breast cancer. Call your doctor if you notice any of the changes shown below.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021

Signs and Symptoms

A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened 
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)
  • New lump or mass on breast (can be painless, tender, soft, or round)
Source: American Cancer Society 2021
Pink Breast Cancer Ribbon
3500000
survivors in the U.S. today
1
in 8 women will be diagnosed
2
times more likely with dense breasts

Breast Cancer Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack breast cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Daniel A. Haber, Ph.D.
Daniel A. Haber, M.D., Ph.D.

The recurrence of cancer in a different site years after completing treatment is a daunting fear for breast cancer patients. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the blood are shed from primary tumors, can lodge in distant sites and remain ‘at rest’ for years only to reawake and grow. Dr. Daniel Haber is using his team’s advanced micro-engineered device to capture the rare CTCs among billions of normal cells in a standard blood sample. The researchers are using the CRISPR gene-editing tool on the captured breast CTCs to identify genes allowing tumor cells to ‘rest’ and ‘reawake’. Ultimately, therapies may be developed to suppress the genes, giving women greater hope for surviving the recurrence of breast cancer.

James P. Basilion, Ph.D.
James P. Basilion, Ph.D.

Dr. Jim Basilion has developed a “smart” probe that when topically applied to the cancer during surgery, greatly improves surgeon’s ability to detect tumor margins. The smart probe aims to reduce repeat surgeries at a later time for removal of remaining cancer tissue which for lumpectomies, can be 25% of the time. Use of the probe may also reduce the chance of cancer spread. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the probe is being optimized for a Phase I clinical trial to use in lumpectomies for lumpectomies to further enhance cure rates for patients with early stage breast cancer.

Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.
Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.

Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRS) are vital ancient enzymes that make proteins in all living things. Dr. Paul Schimmel and Dr. Xiang-Lei Yang, experts in aaRS research, also study the enzyme’s other unexpected roles. One aaRS, SerRS, thwarts cancer’s growth and may activate the immune system. SerRS may also be a suppressor of metastasis as enzyme levels are significantly decreased in breast tissue during metastasis. Their research may lead to a novel way to treat women with triple negative breast cancer, offering them hope that their cancer can be effectively treated.

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.
Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.

Dr. Danny Welch and his team are exploring how mitochondria – a specialized cell part that generates energy for our bodies – may determine why breast cancer metastases develop in some patients, but not in others. Differences in tumor formation, metastasis location and responses to therapy could be from our mitochondrial DNA. This research may lead to a simple blood test to guide doctors in treating patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment, or spare other patients of unnecessary harsh side effects.

Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight genes that get turned off in cancer, as the cells become metastatic. BRMS1 gene, discovered in breast cancer cells, normally regulates gene expression to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’. This research can lead to unique anti-metastasis therapeutics such as smaller proteins that ‘mimic’ the function of the turned-off BRMS1 gene and may arrest breast cancer metastasis.

Dr. Ron DePinho
Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.

STAT3 is a major signaling protein in over 50% of cancers and signals tumor formation, spreading and suppression of our immune system. Developing a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning it the label of ‘undruggable’.

Dr. Ron DePinho and his colleagues used computer-based drug screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds from chemical libraries to identify inhibitors of STAT3 protein when tested in complex models of various cancers. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative,the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor to clinical trials. Patients with triple negative breast cancer and other advanced cancers are being treated today with the STAT3 inhibitor, giving them hope that their lives may be saved.

susan horwitz
Dr. Susan Horwitz
Dr. Amos B. Smith, III
Dr. Amos B. Smith, III

Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product drug used to treat over 1.5 million breast, ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancer patients. Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith, III to develop other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patient may experience. A lead synthetic analogue of discodermolide (a natural product of a Caribbean Sea sponge) has been developed that shows promise for a new treatment for triple negative breast cancer and other cancers.

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Exercise Training May Slow Tumor Growth and Improve Immunotherapy Outcomes in Breast Cancer Treatment

Exercise plays an important role in preventing a variety of cancers. A recent study has increased the importance of maintaining a well-balanced and active lifestyle – indicating a positive outlook for many breast cancer patients.  National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR)-funded scientist Dr. Rakesh Jain, and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that exercise training may slow tumor growth and improve outcomes for females with breast cancer – especially those treated with immunotherapy drugs. Immunotherapy drugs are treatments that use the body’s immune system to fight diseases like cancer. The research team identified this occurrence to be caused by stimulating naturally occurring immune mechanisms.   The team reached this conclusion in animal models of breast cancer, which showed physical activity increasing levels of cancer-fighting immune cells. Tumors in mouse models of human breast cancer grew more slowly in mice put through their paces in a structured aerobic exercise program than in sedentary mice. The tumors in exercised mice exhibited an increased anti-tumor immune response. Perhaps the most exciting finding of the study was that exercise training brought immune cells capable of killing cancer cells into tumors. The tumors grew more slowly in mice that performed exercise training. Dr. Jain has been an NFCR partner since 1998. He is a renowned world expert in understanding how changes in the microenvironment surrounding tumors affect the immune system, drug delivery, treatment efficacy, and patient survival–with additional expertise in chemical engineering. In addition to his fellowship with NFCR, Dr. Jain is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine. He is the ninth person ever to be elected to all three U.S. National Academies. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Academy. Throughout his career, Dr. Jain has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. Including the 2012 Science of Oncology Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the 2016 National Medal of Science from the President of the United States, Barack Obama. He received the Medal of Science for developing new ways to manipulate tumors. Dr. Jain and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School were able to complete this game-changing research utilizing funding from NFCR. NFCR is dedicated to providing scientists in the lab the funding they need to make game-changing discoveries in cancer treatments, detection, and ultimately, to discover a cure for all types of cancer.  Support innovative and life-saving research findings like the work of Dr. Jain with NFCR. Additional Reads You May Enjoy: NFCR-Supported Researcher Leads Study Aiming to Understand Which Patients May Respond Best to Immunotherapy Immunotherapy: Fighting Cancer and More? Cancer Research Applied to Develop COVID-19 Treatment Strategies Stay connected with the cancer community! Receive our monthly e-newsletter and blogs featuring stories of inspiration, support resources, cancer prevention tips, and more. Sign up here.

Research Highlight: Preventing Breast Cancer Brain Metastasis

National Foundation for Cancer Research funded researcher Dr. Daniel A Haber recently unearthed an exciting discovery that may add years to the lives of late-stage breast cancer patients. Dr. Haber is fascinated by understanding drug resistance on a deeper level by studying individual tumor cells in patients’ blood. In December 2020, Dr. Haber and his team shared their exciting findings on how brain metastasis, or the spread of cancer to the brain, may be prevented. Brain metastases occur in about 10% of all patients with cancer and in as many as a third of women with advanced metastatic breast cancer. Though experts have made great strides in suppressing the spread of cancer, there is still little known about the cellular pathways that enable cancer cells to selectively grow in the brain; that is, until Dr. Haber and his research team identified a signaling pathway which appeared significantly more active in brain metastases from breast cancer. “We were looking for what properties of some breast cancer cells made it possible for the cells to grow in the brain, which is a rare but often deadly complication of breast cancer,” Dr. Haber explained. “We weren’t sure what we would find. In a way that’s what makes the discovery process so exciting.” The research commenced approximately 10 years ago while investigating circulating tumor cells (CTCs). As their research progressed, the team homed in on a specific signaling pathway named HIF1A. Using cells from women with breast cancer, the team observed how these cells acted in animal models. It was discovered that if HIF1A was suppressed, the rate of proliferation (or rapid growth) was reduced. Simply put, blocking the HIF1A signaling pathway could reduce the rate of brain metastasis or even prevent it all together. “HIF1A is not specific to brain metastasis, since it’s a very broadly activated pathway in many cancers,” Dr. Haber began. “However, it appears to be more active in brain metastases from breast cancer than in primary breast cancers, and that may help explain what makes these metastases to the brain so unique and so difficult to treat.” The pathway identified in this research is already well known in the cancer world, however its special relevance to the brain was not known until now. Theoretically, a drug could be developed to suppress HIF1A and, in turn, prevent the spread of cancer. While a very promising discovery, Dr. Haber explains that there is far more work to be done. “There are a few HIF1A suppressing drugs now being tested in clinical trials for other indications,” Dr. Haber said, “However, we would have to expand this to multiple different models and systems before we could contemplate an intervention.” In regard to the length of time it takes to have a discovery such as this transitioned to mainstream treatment, Dr. Haber explains that it “depends on the discovery, its potential applications and some ‘luck’.” While the process from discovery to clinical treatment is getting faster all the time, it is likely going to take five to ten years before this finding is implemented into treatment. As for Dr. Haber, he has already planned plenty of work […]

The Forgotten Men of Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Awareness Month, observed during October, presents many opportunities to acknowledge patients and survivors as well as opportunities to remind women to schedule their regular screening. The world lights up in pink, the color of the breast cancer ribbon, and shares messages of support to those affected. With 1 in 8 women estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life, October reminds us all how important it is to self-examine one’s breasts as well as to schedule a mammogram. However, in the urgent messaging towards women, the men affected by breast cancer are often forgotten.  About Male Breast Cancer Breast cancer in men is rare, but it does affect approximately https://www.komen.org/breast-cancer/treatment/issues/male-breast-cancer/ in the United States each year. Though this only accounts for about 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States, it is important that men are aware of their risk of developing breast cancer. Many men, and women for that matter, are not aware that breast cancer affects both sexes. However, the truth is that all people are born with breast tissue making every individual susceptible to the disease. Of the men who develop breast cancer, the majority of the cases are infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC). IDC means that the cells in or around the ducts begin to invade the surrounding tissue. Breast Cancer Detection for Men Acknowledging that men can be diagnosed with breast cancer is the first step in protecting oneself from the disease. This knowledge allows men to pay attention to changes in the breast or nipple area and to speak to a doctor when identifying such changes. A common warning sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast, chest, or underarm region. These lumps are often painless but should trigger men’s concern. Other early warning signs include dimpling or puckering of the skin, change in the size of the breast region, changes to the skin texture, an inverted nipple, or even discharge from the nipple. When men identify these warning signs and speak to a doctor, the likelihood of treating cancer at an early stage increases significantly. Treating cancer at an early stage gives all patients a higher chance of survival.  While all men should be monitoring their bodies for unusual changes, some specific men are at an increased risk of breast cancer. In general, men over 60 years old and those with a family history of cancer are at an increased risk for cancer. Overweight and obese men are also at an increased risk. Additionally, researchers have discovered that men with a specific gene mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer than those without it. The BRCA2 gene mutation is an inherited mutation and not only increases the likelihood of breast cancer but other cancers as well.  Throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the public is made aware of the recommended screening processes for women concerning breast cancer. However, since breast cancer is quite rare amongst men, there are no recommended screenings for the average man. This makes it especially important for men to monitor their bodies for changes and speak to a doctor if they have any concerns. Those who have a family […]