Breast Cancer Screening Using Breast Milk

The statistics are frightening. Up to one in seven women will get breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. With statistics like that, no wonder so many women focus on ways to reduce their risk of breast cancer. Breast cancer screening is important for picking up breast cancers while they’re still small and curable, but some women are concerned about the radiation exposure from mammography. Breast MRI is another alternative for some women, but doctors are now investigating a novel approach to breast cancer – breast cancer screening using breast milk.

Breast Cancer Screening with Breast Milk

At a recent conference, researchers looked at a new method for breast cancer screening using a woman’s breast milk. Since most women give birth, this is simple technique that could be done after a woman delivers a baby as a way to screen for breast cancer.

This test is based on the idea that there are over thirty genes that are methylated in breast cancer. Methylation simply means a methyl group is attached to a portion of a gene. This methylation sends a signal to the body to express those particular genes. If the wrong genes are methylated, it could manifest as a cancer. Thus, methylation of certain genes or large numbers of methylations would raise a red flag that a woman is at higher risk for breast cancer. Using this technique, doctors could take samples of breast milk from new moms to look for methylations in breast cancer cells that enter their milk supply.

How well does this type of breast cancer screening work in practice? Researchers looked at breast cancer cells methylations in 250 women and compared them to their breast cancer risk as determined by breast biopsy. In women who needed a biopsy for high-risk breast findings, the number of gene methylations was greater in the biopsied breast compared to the normal breast. They also found greater degrees of methylation in the breasts of women whose breast biopsy showed cancer.

Breast Cancer Screening: The Bottom Line?

This method for breast cancer screening probably won’t replace mammograms anytime soon since larger studies are needed, but it offers a safe, radiation-free way for women to get a “breast check” to see how healthy their breasts are at the time they deliver a baby. It could be a simple way to alert women to potential breast problems before they even leave the hospital. Hopefully, this type of screening will be helpful to women who are concerned about their risk of breast cancer.

References: “Breast Milk May Provide a Personalized Screen of Breast Cancer Risk”

Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.