Medical Moment: When does breast cancer spread?

Published: Oct. 31, 2022 at 5:36 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer.

Each year, about 2.3 million people in the world develop the disease. Catching breast cancer early is critical for survival.

That’s why researchers are studying how breast cancer spreads in the body, and so far, they’ve uncovered some interesting clues about when the cancer travels.

About 1 in every 8 women will develop breast cancer during her life.

When breast cancer is found early, it’s highly treatable. But if it’s spread, or what doctors call “metastasized,” the prognosis isn’t so good.

“So, we understand metastatic breast cancer, it’s not curable,” said Sara Hurvitz, MD, at UCLA Johnsson Comprehensive Care Center.

Scientists know metastasis happens when circulating cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel in the body via blood vessels. Until now, researchers assumed tumors released cells continuously and haven’t known much about when tumors spread.

In a new study published in the journal “Nature,” Swiss researchers examined mice and female cancer patients.

They found circulating cells that later form metastases mainly arise during sleep. In other words: when a person or animal is asleep, the tumor seems to “wake up.”

Cells that leave a tumor at night also seem to divide more quickly compared to cells that exit in the daytime. Researchers say this isn’t just an interesting finding, it could help improve the way breast cancer is diagnosed and treated in the future. For instance, the next step is to see if giving patients therapies at different times of the day has an effect on outcomes.

New information that could change how doctors manage women with breast cancer.

The research teams said more studies are needed to determine how to put this research into practice.