The Breast Cancer Now Generations Study was set up in 2004 to help understand the causes of breast cancer. At the moment, we don’t know why one woman will develop the disease while another won’t. This is an enormous project following more than 113,000 UK women for 40 years.

Breast cancer risk

The study is investigating the genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that may change a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Identifying these factors and how they combine to cause breast cancer will help us to identify women who are at high risk of developing the disease and offer tailored information about their risk. It will also enable women to receive more accurate advice about the best risk-reducing steps they can take.

The women taking part in the Generations Study all complete a detailed questionnaire giving details of their lifestyle, including diet, alcohol intake and even the kind of jobs they do. They also provided blood samples to provide information about their genetics.

Much of the analysis of the study is carried out by Professor Anthony Swerdlow, Dr Nick Orr and Dr Olivia Fletcher at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Breast Cancer Now is also funding the Male Breast Cancer Study, which is investigating the risk factors associated with breast cancer in men.

A study through generations

One of the strengths of the study is that participants are of all different ages and backgrounds.

For example, Caroline and Sarah Holmes and Judith Cooper are three generations of the same family all taking part. Since joining the study mother Caroline and grandmother Judith have both been diagnosed with the disease.

Sarah Holmes said:

Since my mum and grandma have had breast cancer, I think it is hugely important to determine the causes of any kind of cancer as it causes chaos in the lives of people affected. I am also very interested in finding out if there are any ways my sister and I can reduce the risk of getting cancer when we are older.

Discoveries to date

The Breast Cancer Now Generations Study has already led to the identification of more than 160 common genetic changes associated with the development of breast cancer, as well as showing how life events such as age at menopause and lifestyle factors such as weighing more as an adult all impact on breast cancer risk.

Findings from the Generations Study have also informed the scientific debate on issues that we know are of concern to many women, such as whether stress is linked to a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer, and to what extent the use of hormone replacement therapy increases a woman’s risk. The study has also produced findings demonstrating that smoking is associated with breast cancer risk, while no link was found between exposure to light at night-time or carrying out night shift work, and a woman’s likelihood of getting breast cancer.

The study also works on improving methods to predict risk, and has suggested a new and more accurate approach to predicting an individual’s risk of breast cancer due to their family history.

It is results like these that will help us understand why breast cancer incidence continues to rise, while finding ways to identify high-risk women and develop strategies to prevent the disease.

Get in touch

If you're a member of the Generations Study and want to contact the study team, please phone 020 8722 4469 or email