Sister does her bit for cancer research

16:00, Dec 22 2013
From left: Mary Leech, Jill McMillan, Helen Morriss and Sue Williams.
HIGH RISK: Three out of four North Canterbury sisters have battled breast cancer, with the fourth taking part in a clinical drug trial. From left: Mary Leech, Jill McMillan, Helen Morriss and Sue Williams.

Cantabrian Helen Morriss is the only one out of four sisters who has not been diagnosed with breast cancer - so she decided to fight the disease in her own way.

After her third sister was diagnosed, Morriss, 58, volunteered for a breast cancer preventative clinical drug trial targeted at high-risk women.

For the past five years she has joined nearly 4000 women around the world who have swallowed a pill every day to help in the battle against breast cancer.

The trial ended last week and striking results have revealed the drug, anastrozole, reduces the chances of high-risk women developing breast cancer by more than 50 per cent.

Morriss was one of 26 Cantabrians and more than 800 Australians and Kiwis who participated in the IBIS-II trial, which was conducted locally at St George's Hospital (SGH) Cancer Care Centre.

"My sisters were aged 39, 42 and 49 when they were first diagnosed with breast cancer, and my oldest sister is still battling the disease.


"So I count myself as the lucky one, and this was the least I could do," Morriss said.

Two of her sisters have had a full mastectomy on one breast and the other has had a partial mastectomy, she said.

"All of my sisters have daughters and there is another generation coming through now that are at high risk. I just wanted to do anything to help anyone with breast cancer, it's a horrible disease."

Morriss' eldest sister, Jill McMillan, was the first to be diagnosed at 39 and since then the three other sisters have undergone regular mammograms that resulted in her two sisters, Mary Leech and Sue Williams, being diagnosed at a young age, giving them a fighting chance to beat the disease.

SGH director and oncologist Dr Chris Wynne led the trial in Christchurch and said anastrozole worked by inhibiting the body from making oestrogen, which fuelled many breast cancers.

In the blind trial, half of the 3846 global participants were given 1mg of anastrozole daily while the other half were given a placebo.

Over the five-year trial, only 40 women in the anastrozole group developed breast cancer, compared with 85 women in the placebo group, he said.

"This new research is an important development in breast cancer prevention, in that the results could offer a new option for preventing the disease in moderate to high-risk post-menopausal women," Wynne said.

Morriss does not yet know if she was given the placebo or the anastrozole tablet, but after the "very impressive results" she is now contemplating whether to start taking the drug.

Anastrozole is funded in New Zealand by Pharmac.

Women at high risk of developing breast cancer, including those who have had two or more relatives diagnosed or a mother or sister with cancer in both breasts, should discuss the benefits and risks of taking the drug as a preventive measure with their GP.

The IBIS-II trial, funded by Cancer Research UK, was conducted in 21 countries including New Zealand, Australia, India, Chile, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

The Press