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Got Breast Milk; Who Needs Mammograms?

April 5, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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Women’s breast milk may reveal their risk of developing breast cancer, according to results of a study presented on Monday at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Kathleen F. Arcaro, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, led the research. Though she’s an associate professor of veterinary and animal sciences, her research focuses on the relationship between environmental toxins and disease.

According to an AACR news release, the researchers collected milk from both breasts of about 250 women who were having or had had a breast biopsy. The scientists isolated the epithelial cells (the potentially cancerous cells), then tested the DNA to look for attachment of methyl groups to DNA—epigenetic signals that tell the body what genes should be expressed.

“More than 35 genes have been shown to be methylated in breast cancer,” Dr. Arcaro said. Her group focused on three of them.

With one, RASSF1, it may have hit the jackpot. Among the women whose biopsies revealed cancer, RASSF1 methylation was significantly higher in the cancerous breast than in the nonbiopsied breast.

Dr. Arcaro conceded that the sample was small, but said, “It’s sufficient to tell us that we can use the cells in breast milk to assess breast cancer risk.” If further research (including a current long-term study of about 80 percent of the original participants) bears out the findings, she said, then every woman who delivers a baby in a hospital could be screened for breast cancer via breast milk:

We’ll take a little sample of colostrum, and we’ll tell her how her breasts are doing. It’s totally noninvasive, potentially inexpensive, and really accurate.

This procedure obviously will not replace mammograms. But it could extend breast-cancer screening into a younger age group (women of childbearing years) than the typical mammography cohort.

One other thing regarding breast cancer: It’s very easy, and in fact necessary, for health-care workers to deal dispassionately with “patients” and “scans.” But it’s useful, and necessary, to remind ourselves occasionally that the ID numbers and charts and images represent real people.

Those people are not dispassionate at all. Full of swirling emotions, fearing the worst, searching for reassurance, they may read whole volumes into the slightest raised eyebrow or sidelong glance.

Blogger Ann Pietrangelo has begun a series of posts about her discovery of “the lump that would change everything” and what it has meant in her life. You can find the first three installments here, here, and here. Everyone who has a heart, and especially everyone in the medical profession, will find them riveting.

Related seminar: Breast & Women’s Imaging Seminar

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One Response to “Got Breast Milk; Who Needs Mammograms?”

  1. Ann on May 28th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Just wanted to say thank you for the mention and links to my breast cancer story. You’re right when you say, “they may read whole volumes into the slightest raised eyebrow or sidelong glance.”

    It takes more than skill to be an extraordinary medical professional — it takes a empathy and understanding of human nature. I’m very grateful for the caring diagnosticians who performed my mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy. They made an unpleasant situation much easier to bear.