Image: Breast cancer cells. Credit: Julia Sero
Short first pregnancies and having a heavier first-born child may slightly increase a mother’s risk of breast cancer, a new study has found.
Overall, in the long term, pregnancy reduces the risk of the disease for most women – but having children can affect a woman’s risk in different ways.
In a new analysis of more than 80,000 women who had given birth, scientists found that a short pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, as was having a heavier first-born.
Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, analysed detailed information on pregnancies of 83,451 women who took part in the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study.
They investigated the effect of length of pregnancy and birthweight of a woman’s first child on breast cancer risk, taking into account a wide range of other variables linked to breast cancer, such as alcohol, smoking and breastfeeding.
Of the women enrolled in the study, 2 per cent – 1,767 – went on to develop breast cancer – but those whose first-born child was heavier, or whose pregnancy was shorter, had a higher risk of the disease.
Researchers at The Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre lead important study programmes to understand the genetic and environmental causes of breast cancer.
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Short pregnancy linked to increased risk of breast cancer
Women whose firstborns were heavier than 4,500 g (9lb 14.7 oz) were 53 per cent more likely to go on to develop breast cancer than those whose firstborns weighed between 3,000 g (6lb 9.8 oz) and 3,500 g (7lb 11.4 oz).
A shorter pregnancy was also linked with an increased risk of breast cancer, with those who had given birth between 26-32 weeks of gestation being 30 per cent more likely to develop the disease in their lifetime than those who had given birth at 40-41 weeks.
The effect was stronger for premenopausal breast cancer, with women who had given birth between 26-32 weeks more than twice as likely to develop breast cancer before the menopause than those who had given birth at 40-41 weeks.
The study was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research last week, and funded by Breast Cancer Now.
While the study found a statistically significant increase in breast cancer risk in women with heavier firstborns and shorter pregnancies, the exact size of the increase could still fall within a fairly wide range and needs to be further established.
'Further studies are needed'
The authors believe that a pregnancy that ends at an earlier stage could lead to increased risk through fast cell growth and high sex hormone levels in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.
They suggest that higher levels of oestrogen and a protein called IGF1 during pregnancy in women with heaver firstborns could help explain the increased risk of breast cancer in these women, although this possible link will need to be further investigated.
Professor Anthony Swerdlow, Professor of Epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
“Many lifestyle, genetic and other factors together contribute to a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and having children is known to have a complex effect on breast cancer risk.
“In our analysis of a large cohort of women who had given birth, we found that both a shorter pregnancy and a higher birthweight in a woman’s firstborn child raised her risk of developing breast cancer.
“Further studies are needed to estimate more precisely the extent to which a shorter pregnancy and heavier firstborns increase women’s risk of developing breast cancer, and to study the possible causal mechanism in more depth.”