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Could your breastmilk hold the keys to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer?
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re pleased to share some groundbreaking breast cancer research which uses breast milk to unlock the secrets of the disease. And if you fit the criteria for one of the studies using breast milk, you may be able to donate your own!*
Dr. Kathleen Arcaro at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is an environmental toxicologist who analyzes breast milk for clues about breast cancer risk. In spite of years of breast cancer research, we know little about the reasons why women develop it. The most widely known risk factors - family history and inherited gene mutations - account for only a small number of the new cases diagnosed each year.
But breast milk might be able to help. Some of your breast duct cells naturally slough off into your milk. These cells are incredibly valuable in understanding breast cancer, and they’re also hard to get without an invasive procedure. But you produce an average of 30,000 per milliliter every time you nurse or pump!
Scientists can now use DNA analysis to examine these breast cells for patterns of “methylation:” the presence of methyl groups which attach to key parts of our DNA such as tumor suppressor genes, and “turn them off,” rendering us less capable of stopping the growth of tumors. Some forms of methylation, which is related to things like diet, smoking, exposure to toxins, stress, and exercise, can render us more vulnerable to breast cancer.
Since 2009, Dr. Arcaro has been investigating whether breast milk could reveal patterns in breast cancer risk by studying women who had or were planning to have a breast biopsy. Her research has found that certain patterns of methylation are correlated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
This finding is important because it may allow mothers to one day get a personalized breast cancer risk profile. Even more importantly, the hope is that new treatments may actually be able to reverse methylation, dramatically reducing our risk of breast cancer.
You may have known that your breast milk is amazing for its nutritional and immunological properties, but now you know how it’s a weapon in the war on cancer, too!
* Dr. Arcaro is currently looking for milk camples from 1) African American nursing mothers living anywhere in the country, OR 2) nursing mothers of any race living anywhere in the country who have had a breast biopsy or are expecting to have one, OR 3) mothers of any race living anywhere in the country who have had breast cancer and are now nursing. To participate, see Dr. Arcaro’s donation page. If you don’t qualify for one now, please check Dr. Arcaro’s website at another time, as her criteria do change over time.
If you don’t qualify to participate but want to be involved (whether you’re nursing or not), you can register for the Love/Avon Army of Women, which will put you on a list of people willing to be contacted should another opportunity arise. Dr. Arcaro would appreciate it if you’d select “breast milk study” when asked how you heard about the study.