This year, more than 3,700 British Columbians will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer is one of the more common types of cancer in Canada (along with lung, prostate, and colorectal), and is reported to account for about 25 per cent of all new cancer cases in women.

  • 5 to 10 per cent of cancer cases are hereditary
  • 12 per cent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, however
  • 55-65 per cent of women who inherit a BRCA1 mutation and 45 per cent of women who inherit a BRCA2 mutation will develop the disease by the age of 70.
  • Mortality across the country has decreased about 44 per cent since 1987
  • The five-year net survival rate is now 87 per cent.
Men can get breast cancer too.

This year, approximately 250 men will be diagnosed in Canada. Although rare, men need to be aware of symptoms. If you feel a lump consult with your trusted clinician.

Read Laurie Rix's story of losing her husband to cancer and how she became an advocate for men to get checked here.

B-PRECISE: Provincial Research study

research focuses on better diagnosis and improved treatments. 

Over the past decade, under the leadership of Dr. Samuel Aparicio, the BC Cancer Agency has become a global leader in breast cancer research, tackling many of the pressing and difficult aspects of the disease. Dr. Aparicio and his colleagues have been at the forefront of several significant discoveries, including identifying 10 unique sub-types of breast cancer, decoding the genomic structure of the most deadly of these, and proving that cancer has the ability to change over time and in response to treatments.

Armed with this new knowledge, Dr. Aparicio, Dr. Karen Gelmon and Dr. Stephen Chia are poised to launch a provincial research project called B-PRECISE, which involves a comprehensive study of breast cancer patients across the province.

The goals of B-PRECISE are:
  • better understand how tumours evolve
  • how to treat them most effectively
  • how to prevent cancer from returning, and
  • how to identify patients at high-risk who may require more intensive therapies.
three key areas of investigation are:
  1. studying single cells to fully understand the biology of breast cancer and identify new sub-types;
  2. identifying patterns associated with disease response with an aim to develop new diagnostic tools; and
  3. testing more effective treatments

Researchers have also identified similarities between breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, suggesting that drugs developed for one type of cancer may also be effective for patients with a different diagnosis.

Research is getting to the root of cells to combat mutations

The work of Dr. Samuel Aparicio and his colleagues led to the publication of three groundbreaking studies in 2016 and 2017.  

The first discovery proved that a drug called CX-5461, originally developed for blood and lymph cancer, can be repurposed as a treatment for breast cancer. The discovery resulted in early clinical trials with plans to expand to larger trials and other types of cancer once the safety and effectiveness of the drug has been confirmed.

The second study explored the discovery of a molecule that alters how cells translate genetic information into proteins, which may help researchers better understand and possibly manipulate specific mutations seen in breast cancer cells that are not seen in normal cells. Clinical trials are underway with compounds aimed at changes in the genomes of cancer cells that make tumours unstable and vulnerable to attack. If successful, the program has the potential to deliver new drugs against several aggressive breast cancer subtypes. The hope is that by exploiting differences that separate cancer cells from the body’s normal noncancerous cells, targeted therapies will be more effective and have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy.

DNA, which contains all of a person’s hereditary material, including eye colour, is contained in the nucleus of cells. Cells make up the basic structure of all living organisms. Each cell uses genes to code various proteins that control a cell’s normal function. These proteins are created through a process involving DNA and its companion molecule RNA. Genes provide instructions for specific functions to the proteins. Cancer can happen when one or more genes are mutated or changed so they don’t code the protein properly, which can then affect the normal function of the cell.

The third study, led by Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Sohrab Shah, focused on the mixed population of cells commonly found in tumours. By studying their genetic variations, scientists can better understand which cells stem from a single point of origin and how they multiply and survive. This approach is known as single-cell genomics, and is a critical tool for understanding the cellular makeup of cancer and breaking open the question of why some cancers evolve and evade treatment. In order to maximize the potential of single-cell genomics, Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shah have devised a more effective and efficient method for preparing single-cell whole-genome libraries.

how breast cancer develops

In February, Dr. Connie Eaves was one of seven recipients of the BC Cancer Foundation’s Strategic Priority Fund Awards. Support from the fund will contribute to her team’s project to identify the mechanisms of breast cancer caused by aging. Aging is associated with dramatic shifts in the properties and behaviour of breast cells. As women age, their risk of developing breast cancer increases, so genetic changes that occur in all women as they get older may provide clues to the development of breast cancer. Dr. Eaves will test this hypothesis by comparing the mechanisms that control genetic changes in older and younger women. She anticipates the results could lead to new targeted therapies for breast cancer.

breaking down male breast cancer

In addition to her study of breast cancer in women, Dr. Eaves’ team have launched a new investigation into male breast cancer and have made a very exciting discovery of a previously unknown difference between the cells present in the mammary gland that develops in normal men and women.

"Men develop mammary glands and these can also become malignant to produce a commonly nasty form of breast cancer. However very little is known about about the male human mammary gland, or how cancer develops in it, or how it should best be treated," says Dr. Eaves.

"Thanks to BC Cancer Foundation donors, my research team has begun to answer these questions. We're able to take advantage of our strong history studying the female mammary gland and how it becomes cancerous. Our first studies of normal mammary tissue from men have revealed that one of the major cell types in female mammary glands is largely or completely missing in the male human mammary gland! So now there is lots to do to find out why this is and what it means to the kind of breast cancers that men generally develop."

While very little is known about the male human mammary gland, continued research in the Eaves lab, fuelled by donor contributions, will provide new insights into the male mammary gland; how cancer develops in it; and how it should best be treated.


donate today

For more information, please contact:

Rhea Siu, Senior Development Officer,
BC Cancer Foundation