The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Pathways to Prevention

Epidemiologist investigates ways to better predict breast cancer risk
  • UMass Amherst epidemiologist Susan Hankinson in her office

“Breast cancer is a tricky disease because it’s not only the exposures you have but when you have them that really make a difference.”
- Susan Hankinson

An estimated 230,480 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer last year, which is why epidemiologist Susan Hankinson has made it her mission to investigate the “underlying etiology and biologic pathways” that lead to the cancer’s development. By bringing information to light about lifestyle and biological predictors of the disease, Hankinson is helping others to develop new preventative strategies for breast cancer.

Hankinson is conducting in-depth research around the associations between hormones and breast cancer. She has already helped establish that sex steroids and prolactin are breast cancer indicators in postmenopausal women, and now is fine-tuning that research to more accurately evaluate their contribution to individual risk prediction. Hankinson was also granted funding to research the role androgens, hormones that can be converted to estrogen in the breast, play in the development of the disease.

Plasma androgens have been associated with breast cancer, but whether that association is because they are converted to estrogens is unknown.  If androgens are found to be important, existing or new anti-androgen therapies might provide an alternative prevention strategy for breast cancer. Her work with hormones recently earned her a position on the Endocrine Society Task Force on Hormone Measurement and the title of associate editor for the society’s journal Hormones and Cancer.

The former Harvard Medical School professor joined the School of Public Health and Health Sciences’s Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology in fall 2011 with the intention of bringing her world-renowned research to the next level.

“I think with the new dean, there’s a real increased emphasis on research and growing the school and what the school does, and it seemed like an exciting time to become part of that,” says Hankinson.

Ductal Carcinoma in SituOne of the great unsolved mysteries of breast cancer—and another of Hankinson’s research interests—is why the relationship between body size and breast cancer changes throughout life. Overweight children and adolescents are at lower breast cancer risk as adults, while overweight postmenopausal women are at higher risk of breast cancer. Working with colleagues at Baystate Medical Center and Joseph Jerry at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, Hankinson is hoping to identify some of the underlying biologic pathways responsible for the early life adiposity association.   

“Breast cancer is a tricky disease because it’s not only the exposure you have but when you have it that really makes a difference,” Hankinson explains. “Clearly it is not appropriate to suggest that children become overweight to decrease their breast cancer risk later in life. But if we can find out why this association exists, we may be able to find ways to reap those benefits, without also gaining weight”.

What’s next for Susan Hankinson? After almost 20 years, the National Institutes of Health continues to support Hankinson’s breast cancer risk research. She and her colleagues continue to pursue funding to research the perplexing relationship between obesity and breast cancer. Hankinson also hopes to collaborate with colleagues in the Kinesiology Department to investigate the relationship between exercise and cancer risk and survival.

Hankinson has served as a senior investigator with the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) I and II, two long-term ongoing cohort women’s health studies, for over 20 years—including a stretch as NHS principal investigator from 2006-2011. Her breast cancer research landed her a prestigious spot as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure Scholar—an international award which grants funding, resources and access to an active network of scientists.

Karen J. Hayes '85