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Migraines may lower cancer risk

10th November 2008

Researchers in the United States say that women who get migraine headaches may also be at lower risk of breast cancer.

Headache

A new study from a cancer research centre in Seattle has found a plausible link between hormonal triggers of migraine and breast cancer, which is also connected to hormone levels.

According to lead author Christopher Li of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, many of the triggers of migraine in women are known to be hormonally related, and also are important in the development of breast cancer.

Li's team found that women with a history of migraines have around a 30% lower risk of breast cancer than women not diagnosed with them.

Published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the Seattle study found that while the biological mechanism behind the association is not fully known, it might have to do with fluctuations in the levels of circulating hormones.

For example, women who take oral contraceptives - three weeks of active pills and one week of inactive pills to trigger menstruation - tend to suffer more migraines during their hormone-free week.

On the other hand, pregnant women have high levels of oestrogen, but also experience a decrease in migraines.

There is a well established link between oestrogen levels and hormonally sensitive forms of breast cancer.

The results were compiled out of two studies of 3,412 postmenopausal women (aged 55 to 79 years old) in the Seattle area, including 1,938 who'd been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and 1,474 women without breast cancer.

Women who reported a clinical diagnosis of migraine had a 33% reduced risk of invasive ductal carcinoma and a 32% reduced risk of invasive lobular carcinoma compared with women with no history of migraine.

Only cases of migraine diagnosed by healthcare professionals were counted.

It seemed to make little difference how old the woman was when her migraines were diagnosed, nor whether she took anti-migraine medication.

The researchers said they were cautiously optimistic about the results of the study, which pointed to potential new mechanisms which could be exploited in the prevention of breast cancer.

Further research might even lead to new forms of treatment for breast cancer, Li said.

The team identified another possible factor as being other forms of painkiller taken by women suffering from headache pain associated with migraine.

Migraine sufferers might take more non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like aspirin and ibuprofen, researchers suggested.

Li said part of this reduction could be related to use of that medication, though it was unlikely to account for the whole reduction.

He called for further studies to explore the possibility, but cautioned women against starting to take NSAIDs in the hope of warding off breast cancer.

Cancer experts said the study appeared to support the link between oestrogen and hormone-sensitive breast cancer.

But Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said it was unclear whether what the researchers were measuring was in fact responsible for a higher or lower risk of breast cancer.

For example, postmenopausal women, who have lower levels of oestrogen, also have a lower frequency of migraines.

It may simply be that migraines are a sign that oestrogen levels remain relatively low throughout  woman's life, accounting for the lower incidence of breast cancer among the women in the study.

Obesity, another risk factor for breast cancer, boosts oestrogen levels after menopause because fat cells produce the hormone.

While a new protective factor may have been uncovered, surprising researchers at the magnitude of reduction, Li said women should continue with regular screening programmes until more was known.

 

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