Sarah Harding legacy research project recruits first participant

A pioneering cancer research project launched in memory of singer Sarah Harding has recruited its first participant. The project has been made possible through funding from The Christie Charity, Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal, and the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED) via Cancer Research UK.

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.

The Girls Aloud band member, model and actress was treated at The Christie in Manchester and tragically died aged 39 in September 2021. The innovative study has been made possible by funding from the Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal with support from Sarah’s family, friends and Girls Aloud bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle and Nicola Roberts. Together through various fundraising initiatives, they have raised over £1 million to date.

BCAN-RAY will be one of the first research studies in the world to identify new ways to predict the risk of younger women getting breast cancer.

Speaking about the importance of cancer research before her death, Sarah said: “Research is incredibly important in the fight against cancer. Although this research may not be in time to help me, this project is incredibly close to my heart as it may help women like me in the future.”

Although I don’t have breast cancer myself and I don’t have a history of it in my family, I know just how important clinical trials and research are. I hope my participation will help devise a simple test to detect the likelihood of breast cancer for young women like me in the future.

Catherine Craven-Howe

BCAN-RAY first participant

Catherine Craven-Howe, 33 years old from Hale in south Manchester, is the first participant to take part in the trial. She has worked in healthcare and is currently studying medicine at Liverpool University while working as a healthcare assistant in an eating disorder unit.

Catherine’s first appointment included a low dose mammogram to assess her breast density and a saliva sample for genetic testing.

8 to 10 weeks after her appointment, Catherine will receive feedback about her risk of breast cancer. Then both 6 weeks and 24 weeks after this, she will complete a psychological impact questionnaire to assess the effect of the study on mental wellbeing outcomes such as anxiety levels. She will then receive her breast cancer risk again at the end of the study (likely to be 2025) when the level of risk associated with breast density can be determined more accurately.

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.

Sarah spoke to me many times about breast cancer research and was really keen for more to be done to find out why young women are being diagnosed without any other family members having been affected by the disease.

Dr Sacha Howell, Sarah's consultant and BCAN-RAY project lead

Consultant Medical Oncologist

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 1,000 women aged between 30 and 39 years old. 250 will be women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, with no family history of the disease. And 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, part of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT), in Manchester. Participants will be asked to complete a questionnaire, provide a saliva sample for genetic testing and have a low dose risk assessment mammogram.

Subtle changes in DNA can be identified through saliva and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester is working with the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), via 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.

Sarah’s consultant, Dr Sacha Howell, from The Christie, The University of Manchester and MFT, who is leading on the BCAN-RAY study said: “There are too many young women in their 30s like Sarah tragically dying from breast cancer and we need to find out how we can more accurately identify those in whom it will develop.

“Currently the only indicator we have is based on family history, but this only helps predict one third of cases. While there is research available in the over 40s, this will be the first study in young women. With breast cancer still the leading cause of death in women under 50, we need to find ways to identify those most at risk and offer them breast screening to detect cancers earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful.”

Dr Howell is leading the project within the international Alliance for Cancer Early Detection alongside 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.

The BCAN-RAY project will fulfil Sarah’s dying wish to help women like her. By harnessing the power of cutting-edge science, we can look forward to the day where all women can live free from the fear of breast cancer.

Michelle Mitchell

Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Even in the darkest days of her cancer journey. Sarah Harding was a fearless advocate for research. She bravely faced up to the pain the cancer caused her, undergoing treatment whilst thinking of ways to help other women in a similar position.

“Since Sarah’s death, it has been inspiring to see people coming together in her memory to support life-saving research. The money raised in Sarah’s name will go a long way towards diagnosing breast cancer earlier in younger women.

To date, The Christie Charity has pledged approximately £200,000 to the research and Cancer Research UK more than £500,000. Anyone wishing to donate to the appeal can do so on our Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal page.

The Christie Charity supports the work of The Christie NHS Foundation Trust providing enhanced services over and above what the NHS funds. This includes money for care and treatment, research, education and extra patient services. Gifts from the public make a huge difference to the care and treatment that The Christie is able to provide to patients and their families.

* 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.

Find out more

International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED)

Find out more about ACED - a £55 million partnership between Cancer Research UK, the Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU, University College London (UCL), and the University of Manchester.