Dr. Susan Love is building an ‘Army of Women’ to help save lives.
Her goal is not just to cure breast cancer, it’s to eradicate it. She said, “The key to ending breast cancer is to stop it before it starts.”
She wants to do this by recruiting an Army of Women -- one million healthy women of every age group and ethnicity, including breast cancer survivors and women at high-risk of getting breast cancer -- to directly partner with breast cancer researchers working to make the disease a thing of the past.
Love, a clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California-Los Angeles, started her nonprofit research foundation in 1983 in Santa Barbara, Calif., to improve the quality of women’s health through innovative research, education, and advocacy. The Foundation works to identify the barriers to research and to then create new solutions.
The Love Foundation partnered with the Avon Foundation for Women in 2008 to provide critical research dollars and perhaps more importantly, to help recruit volunteers coast-to-coast.
“Over and over I’ve heard scientists lament how difficult it is for them to find the volunteers they need for research studies. I’ve long believed that helping scientists overcome this obstacle would accelerate our understanding of what causes breast cancer and how to end it. By responding to this need, the Army of Women will change the face of breast cancer research,” she said.
Although her approach is outside the norms of “classic” breast cancer research that works on a molecular level, Love, one of the founding mothers of breast cancer advocacy, is starting to sway hearts and minds of her colleagues to think outside the box.
“There are a lot of people working on breast cancer research, so you have to bring something different to the table if you want to be successful,” she said matter-of-factly.
“When it comes to breast cancer the focus has been on early detection and treatment. More resources need to be spent on determining the cause of breast cancer, which isn’t just going to take more research -- it’s going to take a different type of research. Studying mice and rats isn’t enough. Mice and rats do not get breast cancer; humans have to give it to them. More studies must be done with actual women so we can better understand what is going on inside the human breast and what triggers our own cells to become cancerous.”
The initiative works because it connects breast cancer researchers to a diverse group of real women who are willing to participate in wide variety of research studies. Since its launch in 2008, more than 360,000 women have joined with nearly 50,000 participating in 58 breast cancer studies. This has allowed researchers to quickly recruit volunteers in hours or days rather than the typical months or years.
By challenging the scientific community to expand its current focus beyond breast cancer to prevention for healthy women, the initiative is persuading researchers to work in a different arena outside the normal tightly controlled lab environment that animal models afford, and to look at the whole anatomy of the breast rather than just its molecular biology.
For example, Love said that cadaver studies have shown many women older than age 50 have dormant cancer cells in their breast tissue, but researchers don’t yet understand why these cells are present, and what causes them to become active in some women and not in others.
By focusing on the breast rather than cancer itself, Love has been able to consider some novel approaches to breast cancer screening, breast preservation treatment and a hypothesis that pregnancy causes permanent molecular changes in breast tissue that may provide breast cancer protection.
Through the Foundation’s own research, she and colleagues are working on the development of an inexpensive and easy-to-use test strip, which she likens to a pastie, that can assess if premenopausal women are at risk of developing breast cancer. The self-sticking patch painlessly collects breast fluid that can then be analyzed for malignant cells, in much the same way as a home pregnancy test works.
This approach has already been tested on 1,000 Chinese women with positive results, Love said. If everything checks out, this new screening device could have some real benefits for women globally over the current screening devices, such as mammography, in that it is extremely portable, low cost and would detect the presence of cancer before a tumor develops.
Another study is exploring the effect of previous pregnancy on the physiology of the breast ducts, where breast cancer starts. Love said it makes more sense to look at treating the ducts in the early steps of the disease than to have to remove the entire breast once a tumor develops.
“Not all my brilliant ideas will work, but as researchers we need to consider what we are missing, what could work, what could be different, she said. “That’s the only way we are going to solve the problem.”
To join the Love/Avon Army of Women, here’s what you need to know:
Any woman can join by registering at www.armyofwomen.org/
You’ll be asked to provide some basic information. Members will receive email updates announcing new research studies along with a brief description.
If you fit the criteria and are interested in participating simply reply to the email. Participation in studies is not mandatory.
Members decide what studies they want to do, and there are many types to choose from. Some may require the completion of a questionnaire, while others may require blood, urine, saliva, breast fluid or breast tissue.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast living in San Diego, CA with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Sources and patient information:
Interview with Dr. Susan Love, 22 February 2012.
Love/Avon Army of Women. Online: www.armyofwomen.org
Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Online: http://www.dslrf.org
Reviewed February 28, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith