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, and factors that may allow breast tissue to be exposed to high levels of hormones for longer periods of time, such as later age at first pregnancy and never having given birth.
Conversely, pregnancy and breastfeeding, which both reduce a woman’s lifetime number of menstrual cycles, and thus her cumulative exposure to endogenous hormones (1), are associated with a decrease in breast cancer risk. 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:
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:
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 (20–25). 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” (26). Major findings from these studies include:
Does pregnancy affect the risk of other cancers?
Research has shown the following with regard to pregnancy and the risk of other cancers:
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 (30).
Does fertility treatment affect the risk of breast or other cancers?
Women who have difficulty becoming pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term may receive fertility treatment. Such treatment can include surgery (to repair diseased, damaged, or blocked fallopian tubes or to remove uterine fibroids, patches of endometriosis, or adhesions); medications to stimulate ovulation; and assisted reproductive technology.
Ovarian stimulation and some assisted reproductive technologies involve treatments that temporarily change the levels of estrogen and progesterone in a woman’s body. For example, women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) receive multiple rounds of hormone treatment to first suppress ovulation until the developing eggs are ready, then stimulate development of multiple eggs, and finally promote maturation of the eggs. The use of hormones in some fertility treatments has raised concerns about possible increased risks of cancer, particularly cancers that are linked to elevated levels of these hormones.
Many studies have examined possible associations between use of fertility drugs or IVF and the risks of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. The results of such studies can be hard to interpret because infertility itself is linked to increased risks of these cancers (that is, compared with fertile women, infertile women are at higher risk of these cancers even if they do not use fertility drugs). Also, these cancers are relatively rare and tend to develop years after treatment for infertility, which can make it difficult to link their occurrence to past use of fertility drugs.