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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Helena Vesty

Cancer symptoms to look for as doctors try to make Sarah Harding's final wish come true

A major cancer research project in memory of singer Sarah Harding will look for early signs of breast cancer in young women.

Stockport-raised Harding, who was part of the pop group Girls Aloud, died from the disease aged just 39 in 2021 and one of her final wishes was to find new ways of spotting breast cancer early, when it is more treatable. The new Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women (Bcan-Ray) project will become one of the first in the world to identify which women are at risk of getting the disease in their 30s.

Around 2,300 women aged 39 and under are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. The project, which will run in Greater Manchester, is being made possible thanks to funding from The Christie Charity, Cancer Research UK and the Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal, which is supported by Harding’s family, friends and Girls Aloud bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle and Nicola Roberts.

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Speaking about the study before her death in comments shared exclusively with the PA Media news agency, Harding 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.”

Harding was treated at the world-leading Christie cancer hospital in Manchester. Now, Catherine Craven-Howe, 33, from Hale, is the first person to take part in the new trial.

She is studying medicine at Liverpool University while working as a healthcare assistant in an eating disorders unit. Her first appointment included a low dose mammogram to assess her breast density and a saliva sample for genetic testing.

Kimberley Walsh, Nicola Roberts, Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Cole and Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud (Getty Images)

She said: “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.”

Eight to 10 weeks after her appointment, Ms Craven-Howe will receive feedback about her risk of breast cancer. Later, she will undertake a psychological impact questionnaire and receive a breast cancer risk statement at end of the study, likely to be in 2025.

The project aims to examine the risk factors most commonly found in women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s with the hope of building a model to identify these women in the future. Researchers hope their findings will enable all women to have a risk assessment for breast cancer when they reach the age of 30, with those deemed high risk given access to early screening and opportunities to prevent cancer developing.

The Christie Hospital (Manchester Evening News)

The study will recruit 1,000 women aged between 30 and 39, including 250 with breast cancer but no family history of the disease. The saliva samples will also help experts from The Christie and Cancer Research UK establish which types and patterns of genes are implicated in cancer, with a view to developing personalised risk scores.

These can be combined with other breast cancer risk factors such as when a woman’s periods started, alcohol intake and use of the contraceptive pill. The density of breast tissue may also play a part in the level of risk of getting the disease.

Harding’s consultant, Dr Sacha Howell, who is leading the Bcan-Ray study, said: “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.

Research is being led here in Manchester (Manchester Evening News)

“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.”

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.

“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.”

Sarah was an advocate for breast cancer awareness (Getty Images)

The symptoms to look out for and when to see a GP

These are the symptoms for breast cancer in women, according to the NHS: "The first symptom of breast cancer that most women notice is a lump or an area of thickened tissue in their breast.

"Most breast lumps are not cancerous, but it's always best to have them checked by a doctor. You should see a GP if you notice any of the following:

  • a new lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast that was not there before
  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • a discharge of fluid from either of your nipples
  • a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
  • a change in the look or feel of your skin, such as puckering or dimpling, a rash or redness
  • a rash (like eczema), crusting, scaly or itchy skin or redness on or around your nipple
  • a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast

"Breast pain is not usually a symptom of breast cancer."

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