Dr Kara Britt is the only researcher in Australia working to explain why women who have children early are far less likely to develop breast cancer.
Dr Britt has secured much needed funding from the Peter MacCallum Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Foundation to turn the benefits of giving birth into breast cancer prevention.
Researchers have long known that pregnancy can diminish risk, ever since it was discovered in the 1800s that nuns, who don’t have children, have an increased risk of breast cancer compared to the general population.
Her goal is to ensure that women who have children later or not at all don’t suffer greater risk.
“It’s quite interesting for us in today’s society because if you look at the Australian statistics, we’re deciding as a population to have children a lot later than we were, say, in the 1970s,” she says.
Dr Britt’s inspiration is her own Mother, who tragically died from the disease. A lot of breast cancer research in the past has focussed on treatment, whereas Dr Britt wants to prevent the disease from ever intruding in the first place.
“I wanted to come from the other end having seen my Mum develop breast cancer and say, ‘Well let’s just stop it before it even starts’,” says Dr Britt. “I really feel as though I’ve been able to give something back. Even though I haven’t saved her, hopefully I can save other women from developing breast cancer in the future.”
CEO of Cancer Council Australia Professor Ian Olver says it’s still unclear whether the crucial factor is the mother’s age when she first becomes pregnant, the number of children she has, or how long she breastfeeds.
Dr Britt’s work “will be very helpful research”, especially if it can narrow down which of the three factors is more important, Professor Olver says.
Thanks to winning the Peter Mac Early Career Research Award, Dr Britt is about to begin pre-clinical studies in human breast cells of some of her promising leads. She aims to create a drug to target cells within or around the milk ducts to prevent breast epithelial cells from ever becoming cancerous.
There’s even a chance that Dr Britt’s research could save the lives of sufferers of other types of cancer.
“It would be great if we find that the protective mechanism is not specific to parity protection [having children], but something that protects against all kinds of cancer,” says Dr Britt. “It depends what we find.”
Prevention far better than cure
CEO of Cancer Council Australia Professor Ian Olver confirms that Dr Britt is right to focus on prevention instead of cure.
“It’s clearly better to try to prevent a cancer than to attempt the difficult task of trying to cure it, given that particularly with widespread breast cancer it is very difficult to talk about cure once it’s spread beyond the breast,” he says.
But given that any exciting new drug based on Dr Britt’s research is at least five or 10 years away from being available for clinical use, you’ll need to look elsewhere for ways to reduce your risk straight away.
You can’t do much about the genes you’re born with, but you definitely change your lifestyle. Here are five rock-solid tips, backed by both the National Breast Cancer Foundation and Cancer Council Australia, to reduce your risk of ever developing breast cancer:
1. Reduce your alcohol intake. Limit your alcohol to no more than two standard drinks a day.
2. Maintain a healthy weight your whole life. Women who put on a great deal of weight in adulthood, particularly after menopause, may have a higher risk of breast cancer.
3. Breastfeed if you can. Breast may be best for both you and the baby. The more months spent breastfeeding, the lower your risk of breast cancer.
4. Eat well. A healthy diet, of at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day, may help to reduce your risk.
5. Be active. Studies have shown that regular exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer. Moderate exercise, such as running or brisk walking, can be enough to reduce your cancer risk.
The New Daily is a proud sponsor of the Mothers’ Day Classic, a fun run and walk, which raises funds for breast cancer research. It will take place on May 11. Visit the website to register online before the event.
For details of The New Daily’s Mother’s Day Classic photo competition, click here.