09/30/2012 03:28 EDT | Updated 07/29/2014 04:59 EDT

Breast Cancer Research Sometimes Misunderstood

As thousands of Canadians walk and run to raise funds for breast cancer research this weekend, the reality is that much of the advances in scientific understanding will have little immediate impact on patients.

Sunday's CIBC Run for the Cure fundraiser for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation raises tens of millions of dollars for breast cancer research, education and awareness programs.

This week brought media attention to a genetic study of four subtypes of breast cancer tumours.

It's important not to misrepresent scientific discoveries in the field of cancer research to patients, said Dr. Ben Neel, director of the Ontario Cancer Institute at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital.

"We don't want to give them false hope about the speed at which these discoveries will be translated into clinical practice," said Neel. "I'm confident that they will be translated into clinical practice. Twenty years from now, we will look back on this period of time being the watershed moment in the fight against cancer."

Neel noted that scientists can test a hypothesis in the lab but ultimately it needs to be tested on real human patients — a major challenge and the reason why medical advances often don't immediately become treatments.

"In terms of totally transforming the way we understand breast cancer, I don't think that's really at all what it did," Neel said of this week's tumour research information contained in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"What it did was re-emphasized our general thinking about breast cancer and other forms of cancer as a result of our genes."

Sharon Batt of Halifax says the headlines can be misleading in terms of what the benefits are for patients.

"The hype and the implication that cures are just around the corner … understandably is very exciting to scientists," said Batt, who describes herself as a two-cancer survivor and breast cancer activist.

"But scientists know, and people who work in oncology know that it takes years, usually decades, to translate that knowledge into any kind of treatment. And chances are, the treatment will not be a cure."

When Batt was diagnosed with breast cancer 24 years ago at the age of 43, she was looking for sudden breakthroughs.

"I clipped these stories out and hung on to them, re-read them, looking for some clues that something sudden and dramatic was going to happen that was change the reality that my physicians were trying to present me with," recalled Batt, who did a doctoral dissertation on breast cancer groups and drug company funding.

Batt said she thinks cancer patients faced with a terminal diagnosis need to make decisions based on reality, which includes taking care of themselves, their family and finances.

The danger of cancer headlines lies in raising false hope, agreed Paul Raeburn, a science media critic in New York City who blogs for MIT's Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

"Science moves slowly, it moves incrementally," said Raeburn. "It's very rare for a single study to come out and make a huge difference in people's lives right away."

Neel believes science has entered the age of personalized cancer medicine — giving the right therapy to a specific tumour at the right time. Those research advances will be used to prioritize patients in clinical trials and ultimately change treatments, he said.

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