Scientists have created a life-changing blood test that could detect breast cancer risk even more accurately than mammograms
Having your boobs squished between metal plates isn't anyone's idea of fun, but suffering from breast cancer is most definitely worse, making mammograms—currently the best way to spot the deadly disease—a necessary evil. But that may not be the case for much longer. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen just announced they've developed a blood test that could accurately predict the likelihood that you will get breast cancer within the next five years.
Even though they unarguably save lives, mammograms have two big downsides for most women, says Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, M.D., a radiation oncologist who founded Best Friends For Life, an organization dedicated to helping women recover from breast cancer, after choosing to have a prophylactic mastectomy herself. First, there's the discomfort factor. Taking your top off and letting strangers manhandle one of your most sensitive parts into a machine can be so mentally and physically painful that women may avoid the test altogether. Second, there's the issue of accuracy. The World Health Organization reports that mammography is only about 75 percent accurate in finding new cancers and has a high rate of false positives, which can lead to unnecessary surgeries. (Why Angelina Jolie Pitt's Newest Preventative Surgery Was the Right Decision—for Her.)
With a simple blood draw and over 80 percent accuracy, the scientists say this new test will solve both of these issues. The technology is cutting-edge—the test works by doing a metabolic blood profile on a person, analyzing thousands of different compounds found in their blood rather that looking at a single biomarker, the way current tests do. Even better, the test can evaluate your risk before you ever have cancer. "When a huge amount of relevant measurements from many individuals is used to assess health risks—here breast cancer—it creates very high quality information," said Rasmus Bro, PhD, a professor of chemometrics in the Department of Food Science at University of Copenhagen and one of the lead researchers on the project, in a press release. "No single part of the pattern is actually necessary nor sufficient. It is the whole pattern that predicts the cancer."
The researchers made the biological "library" by partnering with the Danish Cancer Society to follow over 57,000 people for 20 years. They analyzed the blood profiles of women with and without cancer to come up with the original algorithm and then tested it on a second group of women. The findings of both studies reinforced the high accuracy of the test. Still, Bro is careful to note that more research needs to be done on different types of populations besides Danes.
Thompson says that while many women fear predictive tests, knowing your individual risk for breast cancer through genetic testing, family history, and other methods is one of the most empowering things you can do. "We have amazing methods of screening and determining risk, and we have surgical and medical options to reduce that risk," she says. "So even if you get a positive result from a test, it's not a death sentence." (Read "Why I Got the Alzheimer’s Test.")
In the end, it's about helping women take control of their health, Thompson says. "New tests and techniques, having options is empowering." But while we're waiting for this new blood test to become publicly available, she adds there is still a lot you can do to assess your own risk for breast cancer, no medical tests required. "Every woman needs to know her history! Find out if you have a first degree relative who had breast or ovarian cancer at a young age. Then ask about your aunts and cousins." She also says if you're high risk it's worth getting the genetic BRCA tests done and talking with a genetic counselor. The more informed you are, the better you'll be able to take care of yourself. (Learn about breast cancer symptoms and who's at risk in the 6 Things You Don't Know About Breast Cancer.)