Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon
As many as 400,000 women may participate in the Athena study through the five University of California medical centers and their affiliates. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

The University of California, long a supporter of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and annual events like October’s designation as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is now taking that commitment to an unprecedented level.

Researchers and physicians with UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center have joined forces with UC colleagues to launch the Athena Breast Health Network. The groundbreaking project will screen an initial 150,000 California women for breast cancer and follow them for decades through the five UC medical centers. Ultimately, as many as 400,000 women may participate in the network, named for the Greek goddess of wisdom.

“In terms of depth and breadth, from detection to survivorship, this will be the largest study of its kind,” says Hoda Anton-Culver, epidemiology professor and chair who is leading UCI’s effort. “It shows that the University of California has the commitment and expertise to do the most advanced and comprehensive research on breast cancer.”

Athena’s organizers say the multiyear study will lead to more effective methods for screening, diagnosis and treatment, as well as improving survivors’ quality of life.

“The data and knowledge we derive from this project will shape breast cancer care in the way the renowned Framingham Heart Study changed the care of patients with heart disease,” Anton-Culver says.

The UC system is particularly well-positioned for a study of Athena’s magnitude because its medical centers – associated with the Irvine, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Davis campuses – and their affiliates annually screen as many as 80,000 women for breast cancer and diagnose about 2,500 with the disease. UCI screens about 7,500 women a year.

The women enrolled in the network will provide information about health, lifestyle, diet, tobacco and drug use, environment, gynecological history and genetic risk of breast cancer. Data will be used to target prevention efforts. Women with breast cancer will be asked to join a “survivorship cohort,” where researchers hope to identify best quality-of-life practices.

Each year in the U.S., almost 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 40,000 die of it, according to the American Cancer Society. More than $20 billion is spent annually screening for and treating the disease, the most common cancer among women.

“Our goal is to improve survival and reduce suffering from breast cancer, to accelerate research and to lessen the time it takes to implement innovations in clinical practice,” says Athena principal investigator Dr. Laura Esserman of UC San Francisco.

“The study result will be a network that enables personalized care informed by science and fuels constant improvement in treatment options and outcomes,” she says. “With Athena, wisdom will be waging war on breast cancer, and the learning system will continue to evolve until we have cured this disease.”

Athena is one of many Chao Center efforts to beat breast cancer by providing cutting-edge care and driving research breakthroughs.

UCI cancer epidemiologists, in partnership with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Orange County affiliate, also conduct an annual breast cancer data analysis project (click on education & programs/community assessment) to identify and address disparities in the prevalence of the disease in Orange County.

Anton-Culver views these current large-scale studies as the culmination of her 30-year endeavor to improve the lives of those facing the threat of breast cancer.

“I’m committed to fighting breast cancer with every project that helps women at high risk,” she says. “If we can prevent it altogether, then I really have accomplished my mission.”