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Advances in Breast Cancer


February 2022

Karen Blum

Advances in Breast Cancer

Screening and Treatment Get Personal

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women. Breast cancer death rates have been falling over the past 30 years. But nearly 13% of women are still diagnosed in their lifetime. Men can get breast cancer too, although it’s rare.

Cancer is caused by changes to genes that control the way our cells function. These changes affect how cells grow and divide. Cancer results when cells divide uncontrollably. In breast cancer, this happens in the breast tissue.

Researchers are studying the risk factors for different types of breast cancer. They’re also searching for more personalized treatments.

Unraveling The Risks

“Breast cancer is caused by a combination of factors,” says Dr. Montserrat García-Closas, a cancer researcher at NIH. Your genes, lifestyle, and environment all contribute to your risk. Researchers are trying to better understand how each plays a role.

People with a family history of breast cancer are at increased risk for the disease. Some are born with rare versions of certain genes that put them at high risk. These include the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“But the vast majority of patients have no known family history and no known gene that causes cancer,” explains Dr. Margaret Gatti-Mays, a breast cancer treatment specialist at The Ohio State University.

So researchers are also searching for combinations of genes that may lead to breast cancer. “Women can inherit hundreds or thousands of common versions of genes that each have tiny effects, but in combination can put them at substantial risk for developing breast cancer,” García-Closas says. An NIH study called the Confluence Project is trying to unravel these combinations.