Beating the odds


MUHC researchers striving to improve breast cancer statistics  

Although deaths resulting from breast cancer are declining, it’s still a killer. Current statistics indicate that one in nine Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime and 5,300 will die of the disease this year. Investigators at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI MUHC) are striving to improve diagnosis, treatment and quality of life of these patients. Below is a sampling of their latest studies, which are making “cancer history”.

A new noninvasive lymph node test

Cancer severity is measured by its ability to spread – more movement suggests a more invasive tumour. Traditionally, biopsies of the lymph nodes surrounding the breasts have been used to diagnose this spread. Now a new nonsurgical technique, called Breast Cancer Nomogram (BCN), is available which is more comfortable for the patient. Director of the Cedars Breast Center of the MUHC, Sarkis Meterissian, and his colleagues have recently published results in Annals of Surgical Oncology evaluating this procedure. Their findings show that the BCN accurately measures lymph node involvement and suggests that it may be a useful diagnostic tool.

It’s all in the environment

Morag Park, director of the MUHC Molecular Oncology Department, Michael Hallett, Director McGill Centre for Bioinformatics and colleagues recently published a paper in Nature Medicine that shows that the environment surrounding breast cancer cells plays a crucial role in determining whether tumor cells grow and migrate or whether they fade away. Their study is the first to identify the genes behind this environmental control and correlate them with patient outcome. Their next steps are to develop this information to create a gene-predictor diagnostic tool in collaboration with Sarkis Meterissian.


Tumour size does not reflect prognosis for some cancers

In most breast cancers, larger tumour size tends to be associated with a worse prognosis. However, this may not always hold true according to oncogenetic researcher, William Foulkes and his colleagues. Their recent study, published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, suggests that for BRCA1 and “basal-like breast cancers” tumour size does not strongly correlate with either severity or prognosis – large tumours do not necessarily indicate a devastating condition. This may help ease the worry of some women who have discovered a larger lump in their breast. Moreover, it tells us something about the way in which “basal-like” breast cancers differ from other types of breast cancer.

Coping with cancer

For many a cancer diagnosis evokes images of pain, suffering, and death. Researcher (psychologist?) Virginia Lee is developing and evaluating psychosocial interventions for patients who are facing this difficult challenge. Her recent study published in Supportive Care in Cancer, suggests that individuals who can attribute meaning to their life have improved outlooks. This process provides the motivation to reengage in life amongst an array of physical, psychosocial, social, spiritual, and existential changes imposed by the disease. Dr. Lee pinpoints the role of health care providers in helping patients find this global meaning.

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI MUHC) is a world-renowned biomedical and health-care hospital research centre. Located in Montreal, Quebec, the institute is the research arm of the MUHC, a university health center affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. The institute supports over 500 researchers, nearly 1000 graduate and post-doctoral students and operates more than 300 laboratories devoted to a broad spectrum of fundamental and clinical research. The Research Institute operates at the forefront of knowledge, innovation and technology and is inextricably linked to the clinical programs of the MUHC, ensuring that patients benefit directly from the latest research-based knowledge. For further details visit:


Contact Information

Isabelle Kling
Communications Coordinator (research) -MUHC Public Relations and Communications
isabelle [dot] kling [at] muhc [dot] mcgill [dot] ca
Office Phone: 
(514) 843 1560