A history of transforming breast cancer care for women

2019-10-08 10:11:59 AM

October is Women’s History Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

When it comes to breast cancer research and care, Women’s College Hospital has long been at the forefront of innovation and impact. Read on to learn about the hospital’s incredible history of life-saving excellence in this field, and the pioneering women whose vision and determination have had an indelible impact on the health of women everywhere.
While we know that women were generally not included or well-represented in most medical research studies prior to the 1990s, that was not the case at Women’s College Hospital. Since its earliest days, Women’s College Hospital has recognized the unique healthcare needs of women, especially in the field of research. 

As early as 1928, WCH leaders publicly discussed the importance of designing appropriate facilities for a “well developed” research department in women’s health, which would be housed in its new hospital at 76 Grenville Street. And what was the most pressing health issue on the mind of most women in the early 20th century? Cancer.


In the 1940s, following the opening of the hospital’s new full-scale facility in 1935, a Breast Cancer Research Committee was founded at WCH to address the growing anxiety of the “cancer-conscious women of Toronto.” Under the strong leadership of Dr. Helen Milburn, one of Canada’s earliest long-term breast cancer studies launched at the hospital in 1945.

Relying heavily on the participation of student nurses at the WCH School of Nursing and students from nearby nursing schools, over 4,000 young women entered the study from 1946-1962. Participants were examined every three years over a twenty-year period. The study aimed to create a profile of a woman who was most likely to develop breast cancer by examining factors such as a family history of breast cancer, overall health, body weight, breast size and environmental and lifestyle factors, such as smoking.

The 1940s also saw the opening of Ontario’s first cancer detection clinic for women at WCH. In 1948, under the direction of Dr. Florence McConney, the clinic officially opened. While its public-facing focus was on promoting periodic cancer screenings, behind the scenes its primary objective was cancer research. The Cancer Detection Clinic became the source of many important advancements in women’s health throughout the latter half of the 20th century.


In 1963, the Cancer Detection Clinic was also the site of an important clinical study to assess the value of mammography as a diagnostic tool to detect breast cancer. Led by the director of the clinic, Dr. Henrietta Banting, and WCH’s chief of radiology, Dr. Elizabeth Forbes, the study introduced mammography to the cancer screening process. In 1967, the influential study was published in the Journal of the Canadian Association of Radiologists, proving that mammography held value as a diagnostic tool in conjunction with physical examinations. Because of this study, WCH is recognized as the first hospital in Ontario to use mammography as a diagnostic tool.

For decades, this type of research was conducted at the hospital without the benefit of a formalized research program. In 1995, WCH officially established Canada’s largest research institute dedicated to women’s health – Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI).


While the research being done at WCRI expanded into many other important areas of women’s health, Women’s College Hospital maintained its commitment to cutting-edge research into the discovery and treatment of women’s cancers. In the mid-1990s, the Breast Cancer Research Unit, led by Dr. Steven Narod, discovered the BRCA 1/ 2 genes that, when mutated, dramatically increase a carrier’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

In 1995, Dr. Narod was honoured for his accomplishments and named Canada’s first Chair in Breast Cancer Research. Funded by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, long-term support was provided exclusively for research into the causes of and treatments for breast cancer. Dr. Narod is now recognized as one of the most highly cited breast cancer researchers in the world.

Today, Dr. Narod and the hereditary cancer research team hold the world’s largest database of women with BRCA 1/ 2 mutations. The database is being used to perform population-based research into hereditary cancers and provides invaluable resources for the scientists as they search for ways to stop cancer before it can even begin.    


Building on the hospital’s decades-long history and leadership in research and treatment of women’s cancers, and thanks to a transformational gift from leading philanthropist Peter Gilgan, in 2017 The Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers was established at Women’s College Hospital in partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Leveraging Women’s College Hospital’s medical and research expertise and the national reach and network of the Canadian Cancer Society, the Centre has a goal to ensure that every Canadian woman has access to the highest standard of care in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survivorship of cancer – no matter where she lives.

With a vision to give every woman every chance to prevent and survive cancer, the Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers is again transforming how cancer care for women is being researched and delivered.

Women’s College Hospital Foundation extends its deepest gratitude to our extraordinary community of donors, partners and supporters, who have helped advance Women’s College Hospital’s leadership in breast cancer care and research for generations.