Mum's life 'saved' thanks to Girls Aloud Sarah Harding's breast cancer study

Anna with her husband, Tom
39-year-old Anna Housley found out she was an increased risk of breast cancer after participating in a research study set up in the memory of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding -Credit:The Christie Charity

A mother of two found out she had an increased risk of developing breast cancer after taking part in a cancer research project. The scheme was launched in the memory of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding, who sadly passed away from the disease in 2021.

Anna Housley, a physiotherapist from Hale, Manchester, was invited to take part in the study. It is aimed at young women to help them identify if they are at an increased risk.

The study, known as BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Younger Women), was first created in May 2023. It was 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.

Sarah was just 39 years old when she passed away from the disease in September 2021. She had been treated at The Christie hospital in Manchester.

Anna was one of the women who took part in the BCAN-RAY study in summer 2023 after receiving an invitation from her GP. The study was conducted at the Nightingale Centre, Wythenshawe Hospital - part of the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust.

File photo dated 11/09/17 of Sarah Harding during the 13th BGC Annual Charity Day at Canary Wharf in London, as a major cancer research project in her memory will look for early signs of breast cancer in young women. PA Photo. Issue date: Tuesday June 27, 2023. The new Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women project will become one of the first in the world to identify which women are at risk of getting the disease in their 30s. See PA story HEALTH Harding. Photo credit should read: Ian West/PA Wire
Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding sadly passed away from breast cancer at the age of 39 in September 2021 -Credit:PA

Following her appointment, the 39-year-old received her breast cancer risk letter. It revealed she was at ‘increased risk’ of developing the disease.

She was then invited to attend the Breast Cancer Family History Risk and Prevention Clinic at Nightingale Centre. Anna was given further information about her results and was given options for early screening and preventative treatment.

Her risk assessment found small genetic markers in her saliva sample, and her low dose mammogram - a test which uses less than ten per cent of the radiation dose of a standard mammogram - showed high-density breast tissue. These are some of the risk factors most commonly found in women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Thanks to the BCAN-RAY study, Anna was found to be eligible for yearly mammograms. After her first standard mammogram last month, the results were found to be clear.

Anna said: “Nobody wants to be told they are at increased risk of developing cancer, so it was a bit of a shock. But I was also very thankful that I had been identified. If I hadn’t been part of this study, I would have never known.

BCAN-RAY study participant, Anna with her daughters Maddi and Lillian
Anna said if she hadn't been a part of the study, her risk wouldn't have been identified (Pictured here with her daughters Maddi and Lillian) -Credit:The Christie Charity

“I have two young daughters, Lillian aged seven years old and Maddi five years old, so the more things I can do to try and reduce my risk of developing breast cancer, the better. Taking part in this research has been easy and the team at the Nightingale Centre has been great, and it’s reassuring to know that my full dose mammogram was clear.

“I wanted to be part of this research so that we can improve diagnosis and treatment for future generations. If my participation in this study can help with advancing this research, then that’s a really great thing to be part of.”

So far, the BCAN-RAY study has recruited 363 women between the ages of 30 and 39. More than 170 of them have been through their risk assessment appointments, 96 have been given their risks and 24 were found as ‘increased’ - with 72 as ‘average’.

Those participating are asked to complete a breast cancer risk factor questionnaire. They were also asked to provide a saliva sample and have a low dose mammogram.

Dr Sacha Howell from The University of Manchester, The Christie hospital and MFT is leading on the BCAN-RAY study. She was also Sarah Harding’s consultant.

Dr Howell said: “There are too many young women in their 30s, like Sarah, tragically dying from breast cancer. She was very keen for more research to be done to find out why they are being diagnosed despite no other family members having been affected by the disease. Sarah spoke to me many times about this during her own treatment.

“The BCAN-RAY study is Sarah’s legacy and the first study of its kind for young women which is helping us find out how we can more accurately identify those who may develop breast cancer. It is still the leading cause of death in women under 50 and BCAN-RAY will help us identify those most at risk so we can offer them breast screening to detect cancers earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful.”

Researchers hope their findings will enable all women to have a risk assessment for breast cancer when they reach the age of 30. Women identified at increased risk will have access to early screening and opportunities for prevention, to reduce the chances of them developing and potentially dying from the disease.

The study plans to recruit 750 women aged 30 and 39 who have not had breast cancer, and who don't have a strong family history of the disease, through their GPs. The 250 women participating in the study who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer are recruited from The Nightingale Centre and breast oncology centres in Greater Manchester and Cheshire – including The Christie NHS Foundation Trust.

For more information on The Charity Charity, read here. You can donate to The Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal here.