Researchers have spent millions of dollars to improve breast cancer detection methods and develop new treatments for the disease. Why is your focus to pin down the causes of breast cancer?
Seventy percent of women who get breast cancer have done everything right in terms of their lifestyle, yet they go on to develop the disease anyway. It's amazing that I've been working in this field for 30 years and we still have no idea why breast cancer really occurs. In that same period, researchers have managed to figure out that cervical cancer is caused by a virus, and now we have a vaccine to prevent it. Why don't we have something similar for the breast? That's my great frustration.
Is this aspect of breast cancer particularly difficult to study?
Yes, because it's not enough to look at only breast cancer patients and survivors -- we have to compare them with healthy women who have never gotten cancer. By identifying differences between the groups, we can start to identify the causes of the disease. Plus, we need diversity within those categories: women of different ethnicities, ages, socioeconomic groups, and so on. For years, scientists were coming to me and saying, "We don't know how to find all these women to study!" So I started thinking, OK, that part we can fix.
In response, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation partnered with the Avon Foundation for Women in 2008 to launch the Love/Avon Army of Women. How does this organization accelerate breast cancer research?
In a nutshell, we connect breast cancer researchers with potential study volunteers. The standard way to recruit for studies is to go through doctors or post an enrollment notice online. But often these methods don't work -- eligible women don't realize they're needed. On the other hand, the Army of Women functions as a pool of willing volunteers -- a diverse group of healthy women, breast cancer patients, and breast cancer survivors who already have expressed an interest in participating in research. That way, scientists can recruit through us instead of spending months or years approaching women in a piecemeal way.
Can you explain how your process works?
Right now, 336,000 women have signed up with us -- our goal is to recruit at least 1 million. We collect their contact information and basic demographic details. Researchers come to us when they need women for their breast cancer studies. After our scientific advisory committee reviews the parameters of a study, we send out a call-to-action e-mail explaining the requirements to the women in our database. Women have absolute authority over which studies they take part in; we don't match people with studies or give out their personal details.
How has this direct recruitment approach affected the breast cancer research landscape?
Let me give you an example: One study we sent out to the Army of Women called for 250 nursing mothers who were scheduled to undergo a breast biopsy. That's a fairly narrow group. In fact, the researcher estimated that with a full-time recruiter working through the traditional channels, it would take three years to find enough women to populate that study. We got them in ten months. At this point, we've helped recruit for 32 studies. You can move science so much faster this way, and it's making a real difference.