October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and with breast cancer estimated to be the most diagnosed cancer in Australia this year, research into the disease is more important than ever. Here, we talk to a breast cancer survivor and a researcher to learn more about their experiences and understanding of the disease.
An estimated 19,807 females will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia this year, meaning that sadly, many of us have had or will have an experience with the disease either directly or indirectly. Although breast cancer is less common in males, it does still occur, with 167 diagnoses estimated in 2020.
This month, we speak to a cancer survivor and one of Cure Cancer’s breast cancer researchers about their experiences with the disease.
Although Virginia Kinloch never had any symptoms of breast cancer, she knew for some time that she was at high-risk.‘My maternal grandmother, my mother’s sister, two first cousins and my mother all had the disease, and as a result, my GP had referred me for a Tamoxifen Trial (a medication used to prevent breast cancer) back in the ‘90s.’
‘However, it wasn’t until late 2004 that I received my diagnosis, when I was recalled by the Breast Diagnostic Unit following a mammogram. Given my family history, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the news still came as a huge shock.’
A couple weeks later, Virginia underwent a lumpectomy to remove a 4mm tumour. ‘Thankfully, there was no lymphatic involvement.’ she says. ‘However, the doctors discovered from the pathology of the removed tissue that I had lobular cancer – a type of breast cancer that begins in the milk producing glands.’
‘Although I managed to avoid radiation and chemotherapy, the following February I underwent a double mastectomy. My tumour was shown to be oestrogen receptive, so for the next 11 years I was also prescribed Arimidix (or Anastrazole), which is a drug given to reduce oestrogen to prevent tumours from returning.’
Luckily for Virginia, her recovery post-mastectomy was a straightforward process. ‘I was lucky in that I had great support from my family, my friends and hospital and consigned cancer to a past chapter of my life. I threw myself back into playing tennis, swimming, the gym and traveling as soon as my surgeon agreed it was safe to do so.’
‘Thirteen years on, I am still aware that I must be vigilant in case my cancer returns, but it’s not something I choose to dwell on. I know how lucky I am to have had an early diagnosis, quick resolution and enormous support from the medical professionals that treated me. Early detection is crucial, and I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of breast awareness and regular checks for lumps or abnormalities.’
Through her cancer experience, Virginia is certain of one thing: cancer research saves lives. ‘Thanks to the treatment and monitoring I received, I’m still here to share my story as a happy, healthy 74-year-old,’ she says. ‘I feel confident that everything possible has been done to protect me, and I am so thankful for that. Because of my family history, my blood has been stored for further testing for a possible rogue gene, and I am hopeful that this will one day help unlock other secrets of the disease.
‘Without research, progression into the treatment and the eventual discovery of a cure simply will not happen. It’s up to us to make sure it does.’
As the son of a doctor, Dr Prahlad Raninga remembers his father being absent from the home a lot during his childhood, because of his dedication to his profession. As a result, he never intended to study science. ‘My father was always so busy and spent most of his time at the hospital. But as I grew older, things changed. By the time I was in high school, I’d become incredibly interested in medicine, particularly in Pharmacy.’
Originally specialising in a Bachelor of Pharmacy in India, Prahlad soon realised that studying theories wasn’t for him. ‘What I really wanted to learn about was novel medicine,’ he says. ‘I applied for a Master’s with a focus on research and was offered a place at the University of East Anglia, UK to study Cancer Biology and Therapy. My Master’s project was in leukaemia, and from there, my passion for cancer research began.’
‘Over the past six years, four of my family members have been diagnosed with cancer, including two aunts who had triple-negative breast cancers, which are very aggressive, lethal, and highly metastatic tumours that spontaneously disseminate to the lungs, bones, and brain. Both initially responded to treatment but within 1-2 years their disease relapsed. After that, they both stopped responding to chemotherapy and sadly, we lost them both. It was heartbreaking for me and our wider family.’
These experiences spurred Prahlad’s passion for cancer research even further. ‘At the start of my career I was mainly interested in haematological cancer, but the loss of my aunts changed things for me. I started looking into triple-negative breast cancer and discovered the lack of effective treatments available for the disease. It inspired me to change the course of my work and do everything I can to help find a treatment that will save breast cancer patient’s lives.’
Prahlad’s research journey has seen him travel from the UK to Brisbane in 2012, to pursue a PhD degree at Griffith University before taking up a position as a Post-Doctoral Research Officer at QIMR Berghofer Medical research Institute in 2017.
‘Being a researcher isn’t without its challenges’, he says. ‘We’re trying to find answers which nobody knows anything about, so we’re constantly brainstorming to find clues that might help us achieve our goals. Our days are long - usually 12-13 hours, and most weekends are spent working in the lab or from home.’
‘Balancing your professional and personal life is tough, but I know the sacrifices are worth it. You can only guess at what families face when their mothers, sisters, grandmothers or daughters are told that they have triple-negative breast cancer, that there is no known treatment, and that the survival rate is low. Every day I go to the lab thinking that what I’m doing could benefit thousands of families facing this dreadful news.’
The need to develop new and effective therapies is vital, but researchers can’t do this without the support of everyday people like you.