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HCI study looks at young lifestyle factors affecting breast cancer risk


More than 1,000 young women have helped Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) researchers with a study to pinpoint factors that affect the risk of breast cancer.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. The risk of developing breast cancer goes up with age. At age 30, 1 person in 227 is diagnosed with the disease. By age 70, the rate is 1 person in 26, according to the National Cancer Institute.

We know that some lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol and smoking can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Saundra Buys, MD, medical director of HCI’s High Risk Breast Cancer Clinic (HRBCC), led a five-year study of girls with a family history of breast cancer. For Dr. Buys, breast cancer research is personal. Her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. There is a history of breast cancer in her family.

“We know that some of the risk factors for breast cancer don't start in adulthood. They start in childhood,” Dr. Buys says. “We’re comparing the differences in girls from breast cancer families and those from families without a history of breast cancer. We’re comparing their rates of growth, development, and maturation along with lifestyle factors.”

Angela Martinez is one of the young women taking part in the study. Her mother, Mindy, says Angela wanted to make a difference. “She understood the importance of being involved in this study. Potentially, we could end up finding a cure,” Mindy says.

“Cancer is very scary, but knowing we have that hope makes me feel good to help,” says Angela. She is in the control group of the study, meaning her family does not have a history of breast cancer.

Researchers ask Angela questions about her diet and activity levels. “If we can identify early lifestyle factors that change the risk for getting breast cancer, we can make specific recommendations to help decrease risk,” Dr. Buys says.

The study also does a non-invasive procedure called optical spectroscopy on the participants. A light source placed on the girl’s chest gives researchers information about breast density and tissue composition, known to be factors that affect risk levels. Dr. Buys hopes this procedure becomes more widely used on younger women. “Doing this test at age 20 or 30 could give us clues about who should get mammograms or MRIs starting at an earlier age than generally recommended for breast cancer screening,” she says.

“Among 100 women, we know that 12 of them are going to get breast cancer. What we'd really like to be able to do is figure out ahead of time which ones they are.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit