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Sarah Harding – Girls Aloud band member, model and actress – was treated at The Christie in Manchester and tragically died aged 39 in September 2021. Thanks to funding from the Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal and support from Sarah’s Girls Aloud bandmates, family and friends, an innovative study has been made possible.

BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women) has been set up following Sarah’s dying wish to find new ways to spot the signs of the disease earlier and stop it cutting lives like hers short.

Every day more than 150 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK.

Cancer Research UK

What the BCAN-RAY project will study

Every day more than 150 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK* and nearly a fifth of all cases are women who are under 50**, most of whom don’t have a family history of the disease. Currently, there is no routine screening programme for early breast cancer in younger women who don’t have family history of the disease, despite it being the most common cause of death in women aged 30-55 years***.

The project will look at risk factors most commonly found in women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s. Based on those risk factors, the scientists will build a model which can identify which women are most at risk of developing breast cancer in their 30s.

The researchers hope their findings will enable all women to have a risk assessment for breast cancer when they reach the age of 30. Those women identified as high risk could then have access to early screening and opportunities for prevention, to reduce the chances of them developing and potentially dying from the disease.

The study involves recruiting 250 women aged between 30 and 39 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, with no family history of the disease. They will be studied alongside 750 women in the same age group who have not had breast cancer, and who also have no family history of the disease. The study will take place at The Nightingale Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester. Participants will be asked to complete a questionnaire, have a low dose risk assessment mammogram, and provide a saliva sample for genetic testing.

Subtle changes in DNA can be identified through saliva and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester is working with Cancer Research UK to establish types and patterns of genes to develop personalised risk scores. Risk predictions can be overlayed with some other factors such as when a woman’s periods started, alcohol consumption and use of the contraceptive pill. The density of the breast tissue could also play a part in the level of risk of getting the disease.

Dr Sacha Howell from The Christie NHS Foundation Trust is working with researchers from The University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge and University College London to develop a set of tools that will spot the young women who are most at risk of breast cancer so they can have early breast screening and be closely monitored for signs of the disease in order to improve survival rates.

Before Sarah passed away we promised her we would fulfil her wish of raising money for vital research to help determine young women between the ages of 30 and 39 who could be at risk of breast cancer with no genetic history.

Cheryl Tweedy

The darkest nights produce the brightest stars

Several fundraisers in support of this appeal have already taken place including a 5km Race for Life in London’s Hyde Park and a charity ball. These events were supported by Sarah’s bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle and Nicola Roberts. Cheryl said: “Before Sarah passed away we promised her we would fulfil her wish of raising money for vital research to help determine young women between the ages of 30 and 39 who could be at risk of breast cancer with no genetic history.”

By giving to the Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal today, you could help us achieve the best possible outcomes for cancer patients as new, lifechanging treatments become available. Please give whatever you can and help us find even more answers to cancer.

* Based on the annual average number of new cases of breast cancer in the UK between 2016 and 2018, available from Cancer Research UK, accessed February 2023.

** Based on the annual average number of new cases of breast cancer in the UK between 2016 and 2018 by age, available from Cancer Research UK, accessed February 2023.

*** Deaths registered in England and Wales 2021, available from ONS, accessed February 2023.

Last updated: May 2024