Reproductive History and Breast Cancer Risk
- The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may influence a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer later in life.
- Some factors associated with pregnancy may reduce a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer later in life.
- Some factors associated with pregnancy may increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer.
- Induced abortion and miscarriage have not been shown to increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer.
- Pregnancy may reduce a woman’s chance of developing some other cancers, including ovarian and endometrial cancers, later in life.
Is there a relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer risk?
Studies have shown that a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is related to her exposure to hormones that are produced by her ovaries (endogenous estrogen and progesterone). Reproductive factors that increase the duration and/or levels of exposure to ovarian hormones, which stimulate cell growth, have been associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. These factors include early onset of menstruation, late onset of menopause, later age at first pregnancy, and never having given birth.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding both reduce a woman’s lifetime number of menstrual cycles, and thus her cumulative exposure to endogenous hormones (1). In addition, pregnancy and breastfeeding have direct effects on breast cells, causing them to differentiate, or mature, so they can produce milk. Some researchers hypothesize that these differentiated cells are more resistant to becoming transformed into cancer cells than cells that have not undergone differentiation (2, 3).
Are any pregnancy-related factors associated with a lower risk of breast cancer?
Some pregnancy-related factors have been associated with a reduced risk of developing breast cancer later in life. These factors include the following:
- Early age at first full-term pregnancy: Women who have their first full-term pregnancy at an early age have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer later in life. For example, in women who have a first full-term pregnancy before age 20, the risk of developing breast cancer is about half that of women whose first full-term pregnancy occurs after the age of 30 (4). This risk reduction is limited to hormone receptor-positive breast cancer; age at first full-term pregnancy does not appear to affect the risk of hormone receptor-negative breast cancer (5, 6).
- Increasing number of births: The risk of breast cancer declines with the number of children borne. Women who have given birth to five or more children have half the risk of women who have not given birth (7). Some evidence indicates that the reduced risk associated with an increased number of births may be limited to hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.
- History of preeclampsia: Women who have had preeclampsia may have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer (8–10). Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy in which a woman develops high blood pressure and excess amounts of protein in her urine. Scientists are studying whether certain hormones and proteins associated with preeclampsia may affect breast cancer risk (8, 11, 12).
- Longer duration of breastfeeding: Breastfeeding for an extended period (at least a year) is associated with a decreased risk of both hormone receptor-positive and hormone receptor-negative breast cancer (6, 13).
Are any pregnancy-related factors associated with an increase in breast cancer risk?
Some factors related to pregnancy may increase the risk of breast cancer. These factors include the following:
- Older age at birth of first child: The older a woman is when she has her first full-term pregnancy, the higher her risk of breast cancer. Women who are older than 30 when they give birth to their first child have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who have never given birth (14).
- Recent childbirth: Women who have recently given birth have a short-term increase in risk that declines after about 10 years. The reason for this temporary increase is not known, but some researchers believe that it may be due to the effect of high levels of hormones on microscopic cancers or to the rapid growth of breast cells during pregnancy (15).
- Taking diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy: Women who took DES during pregnancy have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who did not take DES during pregnancy (16). Daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy may also have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer after age 40 than women who were not exposed to DES while in the womb (17). DES is a synthetic form of estrogen that was used between the early 1940s and 1971 to prevent miscarriages and other pregnancy problems.
Is abortion linked to breast cancer risk?
A few retrospective (case-control) studies reported in the mid-1990s suggested that induced abortion (the deliberate ending of a pregnancy) was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. However, these studies had important design limitations that could have affected the results. A key limitation was their reliance on self-reporting of medical history information by the study participants, which can introduce bias. Prospective studies, which are more rigorous in design and unaffected by such bias, have consistently shown no association between induced abortion and breast cancer risk (18–23). Moreover, in 2009, the Committee on Gynecologic Practice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded that “more rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk” (24). Major findings from these recent studies include the following:
- Women who have had an induced abortion have the same risk of breast cancer as other women.
- Women who have had a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) have the same risk of breast cancer as other women.
- Cancers other than breast cancer also appear to be unrelated to a history of induced or spontaneous abortion.
Does pregnancy affect the risk of other cancers?
Research has shown the following with regard to pregnancy and the risk of other cancers:
- Women who have had a full-term pregnancy have reduced risks of ovarian (25, 26) and endometrial (27) cancer. Furthermore, the risks of these cancers decline with each additional full-term pregnancy.
- Pregnancy also plays a role in an extremely rare type of tumor called a gestational trophoblastic tumor. In this type of tumor, which starts in the uterus, cancer cells grow in the tissues that are formed following conception.
- There is some evidence that pregnancy-related factors may affect the risk of other cancer types, but these relationships have not been as well studied as those for breast and gynecologic cancers. The associations require further study to clarify the exact relationships.
As in the development of breast cancer, exposures to hormones are thought to explain the role of pregnancy in the development of ovarian, endometrial, and other cancers. Changes in the levels of hormones during pregnancy may contribute to the variation in risk of these tumors after pregnancy (28).
- Colditz GA, Baer HJ, Tamimi RM. Breast cancer. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF, editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Russo J, Moral R, Balogh GA, Mailo D, Russo IH. The protective role of pregnancy in breast cancer. Breast Cancer Research 2005; 7(3):131–142. [PubMed Abstract]
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- Lord SJ, Bernstein L, Johnson KA, et al. Breast cancer risk and hormone receptor status in older women by parity, age of first birth, and breastfeeding: a case-control study. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention 2008; 17(7):1723–1730. [PubMed Abstract]
- Ma H, Bernstein L, Pike MC, Ursin G. Reproductive factors and breast cancer risk according to joint estrogen and progesterone receptor status: a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Breast Cancer Research 2006; 8(4):R43. [PubMed Abstract]
- Lambe M, Hsieh CC, Chan HW, et al. Parity, age at first and last birth, and risk of breast cancer: a population-based study in Sweden. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 1996; 38(3):305–311. [PubMed Abstract]
- Vatten LJ, Romundstad PR, Ødegård RA, et al. Alpha-foetoprotein in umbilical cord in relation to severe pre-eclampsia, birth weight and future breast cancer risk. British Journal of Cancer 2002; 86(5):728–731. [PubMed Abstract]
- Terry MB, Perrin M, Salafia CM, et al. Preeclampsia, pregnancy-related hypertension, and breast cancer risk. American Journal of Epidemiology 2007; 165(9):1007–1014. [PubMed Abstract]
- Nechuta S, Paneth N, Velie EM. Pregnancy characteristics and maternal breast cancer risk: a review of the epidemiologic literature. Cancer Causes and Control 2010; 21(7):967–989. [PubMed Abstract]
- Tamimi R, Lagiou P, Vatten LJ, et al. Pregnancy hormones, pre-eclampsia, and implications for breast cancer risk in the offspring. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention 2003; 12(7):647–650. [PubMed Abstract]
- Vatten LJ, Romundstad PR, Trichopoulos D, Skjærven R. Pre-eclampsia in pregnancy and subsequent risk for breast cancer. British Journal of Cancer 2002; 87(9):971–973. [PubMed Abstract]
- Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without the disease. The Lancet 2002; 360(9328):187–195. [PubMed Abstract]
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- Titus-Ernstoff L, Hatch EE, Hoover RN, et al. Long-term cancer risk in women given diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy. British Journal of Cancer 2001; 84(1):126–133. [PubMed Abstract]
- Palmer JR, Wise LA, Hatch EE, et al. Prenatal diethylstilbestrol exposure and risk of breast cancer. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 2006; 15(8):1509–1514. [PubMed Abstract]
- Reeves GK, Kan SW, Key T, et al. Breast cancer risk in relation to abortion: results from the EPIC study. International Journal of Cancer 2006; 119(7):1741–1745. [PubMed Abstract]
- Michels KB, Xue F, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Induced and spontaneous abortion and incidence of breast cancer among young women: a prospective cohort study. Archives of Internal Medicine 2007; 167(8):814–820. [PubMed Abstract]
- Beral V, Bull D, Doll R, Peto R, Reeves G. Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Breast cancer and abortion: collaborative reanalysis of data from 53 epidemiological studies, including 83,000 women with breast cancer from 16 countries. Lancet 2004; 363(9414):1007–1016. [PubMed Abstract]
- Henderson KD, Sullivan-Halley J, Reynolds P, et al. Incomplete pregnancy is not associated with breast cancer risk: the California Teachers Study. Contraception 2008; 77(6):391–396. [PubMed Abstract]
- Lash TL, Fink AK. Null association between pregnancy termination and breast cancer in a registry-based study of parous women. International Journal of Cancer 2004; 110(3):443–448. [PubMed Abstract]
- Rosenblatt KA, Gao DL, Ray RM, et al. Induced abortions and the risk of all cancers combined and site-specific cancers in Shanghai. Cancer Causes and Control 2006; 17(10):1275–1280. [PubMed Abstract]
- Committee on Gynecologic Practice. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 434: induced abortion and breast cancer risk. Obstetrics and Gynecology 2009; 113(6):1417–1418. [PubMed Abstract]
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- Titus-Ernstoff L, Perez K, Cramer DW, et al. Menstrual and reproductive factors in relation to ovarian cancer risk. British Journal of Cancer 2001; 84(5):714–721. [PubMed Abstract]
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