This article was originally featured in the Brigham Bulletin.
As far as she can tell, Mil Pierce, 55, of Belmont has done everything right in terms of leading a healthy lifestyle. She never smoked. She goes to the gym twice a week and walks her dog nearly every day. She doesn’t drink alcohol in excess. And she’s eliminated red meat from her diet.
Pierce has made these choices with the knowledge that she has a strong family history of breast cancer. The disease has affected her mother, maternal grandmother and a maternal great aunt, among many other relatives.
Yet after Pierce underwent genetic testing to see if she had an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes – an alteration that greatly increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer – the lab results showed she didn’t have the harmful mutation.
That’s why Pierce was stunned to learn two years ago, following a biopsy, that there were precancerous cells in her breast tissue. If left untreated, the abnormal cells could develop into breast cancer.
“When I got that diagnosis, it hit me like a brick. I thought, wow, there’s something else going on,” she said. “Genetically speaking, there’s no explanation for it.”
Today, Pierce is hopeful not only for her own continued health but also that of her two teenage daughters, thanks to the care, resources and guidance she’s receiving through the Breast Cancer Personalized Risk Assessment, Education and Prevention (B-PREP) Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC).
Launched about two years ago and led by Tari King, MD, chief of Breast Surgery at DF/BWCC, the B-PREP Program develops a comprehensive, customized risk profile for every patient and a personalized plan aimed at reducing the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Upon entering the program, patients complete a survey that asks not only about their medical history but also a wide range of lifestyle factors that experts believe can contribute to breast cancer risk, including diet, physical activity, sleep, weight changes, whether they work a night shift and more.
“Assessing individual risk for breast cancer is complicated,” King said. “Breast cancer is not just one disease; it is a family of diseases, and the risk factors that can lead to the development of different types of breast cancer also vary.”
King emphasized that the program is open to all patients, including—and perhaps especially—those who don’t know their breast cancer risk.
“Many women think that if breast cancer is not in their family that they don’t have to worry about it, and that is not true. In fact, most women who come in with their first diagnosis of breast cancer don’t have a family history,” King said. “Our doors are open to anyone who wants to learn about their risk.”
Another big misconception the B-PREP Program is working to dispel is that people at increased risk are at the mercy of their biology, King said. Based on what B-PREP’s multidisciplinary team learns from an assessment, each patient receives personalized recommendations and is connected to relevant resources, such as a referral to the Brigham’s Program for Weight Management or information about clinical trials currently enrolling patients.
One such novel trial is looking at how exercise affects breast cancer risk in women who have dense breast tissue and do not currently engage in regular exercise. Led by Jennifer Ligibel, MD, a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at DF/BWCC, the study pairs participants with a personal trainer for 12 weeks. Researchers will collect a breast tissue sample from participants before and after they complete the exercise program.
“We know that women who exercise more have a lower risk of developing breast cancer, but we don’t know why. We also know that denser breast tissue – that is, tissue containing more glandular elements to it and less fatty tissue – is linked to a higher risk, and, again, we don’t know why,” Ligibel said. “In a previous study we conducted looking at women who already had breast cancer, we saw that exercise actually changed the immune system within the cancer. Now, we’re looking at whether those same types of changes from exercise can be seen before a tumor has even emerged.”
Pierce learned about her eligibility for the study from her B-PREP providers and became one of the first patients to enroll. She appreciates how comprehensive the B-PREP Program is, including the opportunities to participate in clinical trials that explore wellness-based approaches to prevention.
“This breast density and exercise study was music to my ears,” she said. “I’m really excited about being on the cutting edge of research, especially since there’s a mystery here.”