Tears about Breast Cancer: But for Detection, not Dejection

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A new test to detect breast cancer using protein biomarkers in ordinary tears promises a non-invasive, painless precursor to mammography.

Tears about Breast Cancer: But for Detection, not Dejection

We recently had the opportunity to re-watch How to Survive a Plague, David France’s 2012 documentary on the critical role of activism on the part of people dying of HIV to propel governmental support of research that has made living with HIV a reality today. It has lost none of its power or rage. Both may become useful again, as kindling for activism to restart the U.S. Council on AIDS recently depopulated by the party in power and declared by many to be, prematurely, dead.

What stood out as strongly as it did when the documentary was new was the crucial role in the struggle played by women—politicians, medical professionals, mothers, women in low-profile public health positions who stepped up and forward (and occasionally out of retirement) to push yet again and, boots on the ground, lesbians, individuals and entire civilian armies of them.

We remember when many of the most articulate among those asked, unselfishly but with a rage of their own, What are you guys going to do to help us with breast cancer, which has been around longer, faced comparable scientific and political negligence, and is claiming the lives of more women than AIDS is taking men? You're getting the attention because you're good at it; when's our turn? It was the only question a cadre of men fighting to save their own lives, and willing to talk back to anyone, didn’t.

So we thought we’d check back in on breast cancer world, 2018 version. We’re concerned that the fractured publich attnetion has once again found itself willing to get vague about the reality of breast cancer as soon as Angelina puts on her haute couture for the Golden Globes. As trechant an activist as the cause of breast cancer has had, Jolie went toe to toe with the Act Up activists of yesteryear by daring to putphotos of her nude post-double-mastectomy torso in the international press.


Lest we forget. Again.

The facts, ma’am

  • “One in eight U.S. women—12.4%—will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.” (This from the invaluable Breastcancer.org Fact Sheet, the source of the rest of the facts in this section, and more complete.)
  • “In 2018, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men and women, along with 63,960 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer (also known as carcinoma in situ). About 40,920 women are expected to die in 2018 from breast cancer….” 
  • “For women in the United States, breast cancer death rates are higher than death rates for any other type of cancer, except lung cancer.”
  • “Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women.”
  • “In women under 45, breast cancer is more common in African-American women than white women.” 
  • “As of January 2018, there were about 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S.”

There’s literally more where that came from. For the usual reason of available statistics, these facts are, again, only about U.S. women.

Also, in late October last year, CNN reported that a global study has revealed 72 new mutations of breast cancer.

One more, from the Breast Cancer Foundation: “In recent years, there's been an explosion of life-saving treatment advances against breast cancer, bringing new hope and excitement. Instead of only one or two options, today there's an overwhelming menu of treatment choices that fight the complex mix of cells in each individual cancer.” 

What hasn’t changed is that the single most important key to surviving breast cancer is early detection, much of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been made the job of women themselves.

So some news

Tears—that’s the word pronounced with a long “e” rather than a long “a”—have now become not just a response to breast cancer but a helpful, hopeful sign for detecting breast cancer. We’re going to say more below, but, if you are one of the people for whom seeing is believing, we direct you to this YouTube post:


The technology is not, strictly speaking, new. It just warrants more public information.

A fine summary is available from the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. On its website, the Foundation reports the development of an American biotechnology company, Ascendant Dx. It has, the article says, “developed a tear-collecting device, which looks for certain protein biomarkers that indicate the presence of breast cancer. It takes just half an hour to produce a result, and is cheaper and more accessible than a mammogram.”

The device is called Melody.

Notes about the Melody

It’s not widely available yet, but it’s relatively far along the usual, and essential, clinical-trials phase. It has been used in Arkansas since July 19, 2017. Its lead scientist, Dr. Anna Daily, states, “Our goal is to have Melody available in physician offices and wellness clinics so that testing could be done during a yearly wellness visit.” 

Besides being non-invasive, the test does not require specialized equipment, beyond the detecting device, which is the shape of, and slightly larger than, a computer “thumb drive.” Existing mammography equipment is expensive, so it is hoped that Melody could be used in parts of the world where there are no operating screening centers.

Standard mammography results, while highly valuable, also famously produce both false positives and false negatives. So far, “tear testing” has proved 90% accurate. The new test does not replace the mammography, but, rather, indicates that one is necessary

The test begins with the non-invasive extraction of a tear from an eye. (Any method that doesn’t involve a chemical is acceptable.) The tear is placed on a test strip (a Schirmer strip) “to evaluate the concentration of certain biomarkers and coloration to detect cancer.”

A Toyos Clinic website explains the subsequent testing as follows (verbatim):

“The breast cancer tear test utilizes a Schirmer strip, special filter paper, to capture the tear fluid. Then the strip is placed in buffer fluid for 15 minutes. Then the proteins captured are put into the measuring cartridge. The patent pending discriminating biomarker panel, MelodyDx, distinguishes differences in proteins present in human tears.

“Dr. Suzanne Klimberg discovered the breast cancer proteins 10 years ago and helped co-invent MelodyDx. It has a sensitivity rate of 90%, nearly twice as accurate as a mammogram. Also breast cancer detection by mammogram is difficult in women with dense breast tissue. The test could help in that subset of patients as well.” 

By now it’s a near consensus that, vital as technology is to crucial medical developments, high-tech gadgetry warrants scrutiny device by device, app by app, and does not supplant the vital work of real-life health professionals. While this is not a product endorsement, Melody seems to us a technology to watch, and maybe to shed a tear of gratitude for.







Links to technical papers on the research and technology:



About AscendantDx’s Melody




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