Professor Sharon Kilbreath

NBCF Career Fellow
University of Sydney

S-Kilbreath-Portrait-2012Professor Sharon Kilbreath is an NBCF Career Fellow looking at the prevention and recovery from long term issues that relate to breast cancer treatment, particularly lymphoedema, the swelling of the arm after breast cancer surgery. Following her early training in Canada as a physiotherapist, Professor Kilbreath completed her PhD in neurophysiology at the University of New South Wales. She currently heads a laboratory at the University of Sydney.

You are currently looking in the specific causes and risk factors of musculoskeletal problems and lymphoedema. How have you approached determining the causes and risk factors?

We are tackling the myths associated with the causes of lymphoedema by surveying over 500 women for 18 months after breast cancer surgery. We hope to determine the physical risk factors that could result in lymphoedema, such as cuts, abrasions and sunburn. We also hope to determine any possible environmental risk factors by looking at aeroplane travel, physical activity and exercise.

How will your research impact on early detection techniques and intervention programmes for long term issues relating to breast cancer treatment?

We have focused on the swelling of the arm and also swelling in other areas of the body, including the chest and hand, which can be difficult to assess and treat. I think that our research will have several significant contributions on the early detection of swelling. Our research aims to provide clinicians with the tools to identify increases in fluid before it becomes visible in the arm, or in other areas of the body, as swelling. We also hope to develop effective strategies to treat any swelling.

You have also trialled an intervention programme that offers early rehabilitation following breast cancer treatment. Were there any significant observations that offer hope for effective treatment and prevention of long term complications?

There were two exciting findings in this programme. In our exercise intervention, we found that women were able to progress to vigorous exercise in the arm without causing lymphoedema. We also found that quite a few women experienced transient swelling in the first year, however, very few of these women had swelling 15 months after surgery.

What inspires you to work in breast cancer research?

I became interested in breast cancer research after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. My immediate coping strategy was to go to the literature to see what I could do to prevent long term problems such as lymphoedema. At that time, the literature was pretty sparse! Women were provided with a list of ‘DOs and DON’Ts’ without any evidence to support this advice. I am inspired to contribute to research in this area. We are challenging the assumptions and showing that many of the ‘DOs and DON’Ts’ are not supported, which means that women can get on with their life and not be fearful whenever they use their arm.