Four-year study seeks to improve breast cancer survival for younger Kiwi women - News & Updates • Breast Cancer Foundation NZ

Four-year study seeks to improve breast cancer survival for younger Kiwi women

A new research partnership between Breast Cancer Foundation NZ (BCFNZ) and the Universities of Auckland and Otago has begun investigating the unique characteristics of breast cancer in younger Kiwi women, in an effort to improve treatment selection and reduce deaths.

The Helena McAlpine Young Women’s Breast Cancer Study, a $600,000 project funded by BCFNZ over four years, is the first of its type in New Zealand to focus on women who are diagnosed with breast cancer younger than 45. The study is named for media personality Helena McAlpine, who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for BCFNZ’s research programmes before her death from breast cancer in 2015, aged just 37.

Breast cancer advocate Helena McAlpine
Breast cancer advocate Helena McAlpine

“Helena's bucket list included ‘leave a legacy of awesomeness’, and for myself, her friends and family, this dedication is a really touching acknowledgement of the work she did for the Foundation, and her commitment to educate women about breast cancer,” said Chris Barton, Helena’s husband.

The scientists involved in the new study, led by Auckland’s Dr Annette Lasham and Otago’s Associate Professor Logan Walker, will examine data in the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ National Register to develop a prognostic tool to guide treatment decisions for young patients. They will also analyse hundreds of breast cancer tissue samples to look for molecular signatures and genetic mutations.

“Younger women diagnosed with breast cancer have poorer outcomes and it’s really important for us to understand why that is,” said Dr Lasham, a senior research fellow in Molecular Medicine and Pathology in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Dr Annette Lasham in her laboratory
Dr Annette Lasham

“Because most women develop breast cancer when they are older than 45, most of our knowledge is based on older women. By gaining a fuller understanding of breast cancer in younger women, and being able to better predict outcomes for individual patients, we hope this research will result in fewer deaths.”

Breast cancer is the biggest cause of cancer-related deaths in women under 45 in New Zealand. Around 11% of Kiwi women diagnosed with breast cancer are younger than 45, but can be up to 19% for Māori and up to a quarter for Pacific women. As many as 20% of younger women with breast cancer have a family history of the disease.

“We’re honoured to fund this research – named for Helena McAlpine, as we mark five years since her passing,” said Evangelia Henderson, BCFNZ chief executive.

“From the time she was diagnosed in 2009, aged 31, to her death from metastatic breast cancer in 2015, Helena was a fierce campaigner for breast cancer awareness, particularly among younger women. We hope this research will transform the way younger patients are treated in NZ, allowing them access to more effective treatments, sooner.”

Miriam Fuimaono, who was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year at the age of 40, believes this research offers hope for young women facing a breast cancer diagnosis: “I think for a lot of women it would lessen anxiety about the future, knowing they’ve had the best possible treatment for their specific case. No one wants to live every day with the thought of ‘what if’ hanging over their head, or the fear of recurrence.

“I’m 40 years young and I was diagnosed at a point of my life where I was at my fittest and healthiest. It’s been a surreal year and I can’t believe I’ve survived. It can be crippling for your quality of life, constantly looking over your shoulder. The mental and emotional impact of a breast cancer diagnosis can last a lot longer than the physical aspect, so anything to alleviate that part of it would give people hope.”

The research will range from statistical modelling of patients’ treatments and outcomes to the molecular analysis of cancer samples to better understand genetic pre-dispositions to the disease.

Besides the staff from the universities, experts from the Waitemata and Canterbury District Health Boards – a pathologist and a medical oncologist -- will take part in the study.

“There has been similar genetic analysis of breast cancer in younger women internationally, but not in New Zealand,” said Walker, who’s in the department of Pathology and Biomedical Science at the University of Otago, Christchurch. “We want to improve our ability to prevent, diagnose early and treat younger women in NZ, and also contribute to global efforts against breast cancer.”