Every year, in early December, I’m irresistibly drawn to Texas, and the annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS), where I gather with 9,000 others to learn what insights the past year has yielded about breast cancer causes, prevention and treatment. A joint effort of the American Association for Cancer Research, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center, the SABCS is the largest scientific meeting in the world dedicated exclusively to breast cancer research. For me, the anticipation begins even before I arrive, spotting fellow advocates and oncologists I know at the airport.
Valerie Beral, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in England, opened this year’s conference with a plenary session on the causes and prevention of breast cancer. This was hardly new information, yet I found it compelling.
“Why,” Beral asked, “does breast cancer vary across the world so dramatically?” She noted that the cumulative incidence of breast cancer until age 70, by percentage of the population, is only about 1 percent in rural Africa and Asia. In contrast, in developed countries, the cumulative incidence is six- to sevenfold higher, with breast cancer affecting 6 percent of women by age 70. Furthermore, while the rates of new breast cancers have apparently stabilized in developed countries like the U.S., the rates are now rising steeply—just as they did here 30 to 40 years ago—in the crowded cities of the developing world.