Obesity increases breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women

An analysis of extended follow-up data from the Women's Health Initiative clinical trials suggests that postmenopausal women who were overweight and obese had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer compared to women of normal weight, according to an article, ‘Overweight, Obesity, and Postmenopausal Invasive Breast Cancer Risk - A Secondary Analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Clinical Trials’, published online by JAMA Oncology.

Dr Marian L Neuhouser of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and co-authors examined the association between being overweight and obese with the risk of postmenopausal invasive breast cancer. The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) protocol measured height and weight, baseline and annual or biennial mammograms, and breast cancer in 67,142 postmenopausal women enrolled from 1993 to 1998 with a median of 13 years of follow-up. There were 3,388 invasive breast cancers.

Analysis by the authors found:

  • Women who were overweight (body mass index [BM] 25 to < 30); obese, grade 1 (BMI 30 to < 35); and obese, grade 2 plus 3 (BMI greater than 35) had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer compared to women of normal weight (BMI < 25)
  • The risk was greatest for women with a BMI greater than 35; those women had a 58 percent increased risk of invasive breast cancer compared with women of normal weight (BMI < 25)
  • A BMI of 35 or higher was associated with increased risk of estrogen and progesterone receptor-positive breast cancer but not estrogen receptor-negative cancers
  • Obesity was associated with markers of poor prognosis; women with a BMI greater than 35 were more likely to have large tumors, evidence of lymph node involvement and poorly differentiated tumors
  • Women with a baseline BMI of less than 25 who gained more than 5 percent of body weight during the follow-up period had an increased risk of breast cancer
  • Among women who were already overweight or obese there was no association of weight change (gain or loss) with breast cancer during follow-up
  • There was no effect on the BMI-breast cancer relationship from postmenopausal hormone therapy (HT)

'Obesity is associated with a dose-response increased postmenopausal breast cancer risk, particularly for oestrogen receptor- and progesterone receptor-positive disease, but risk does not vary by HT use or race/ethnicity. These clinically meaningful findings support the need for clinical trials evaluating the role of obesity prevention and treatment on breast cancer risk,' the article concludes.

In a related commentary, ‘Obesity and Breast Cancer - Narrowing the Focus’, Dr Clifford Hudis of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and Dr Andrew Dannenberg of the Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, write: '…In addition to identifying an increased risk for women who are overweight or obese, their data suggest a dose-response relationship with higher BMI categories associated with greater relative risk. The collection of WHI clinical trials includes some in which oestrogen supplementation (alone or with progesterone) was tested, but they note no significant modification of risk with the use of hormone replacement therapy. Finally, they did not detect a change in risk for hormone receptor–negative breast cancers. Considering earlier observations suggesting a protective effect for obesity among premenopausal women, Neuhouser et al help refine our understanding of the risk of overweight and obesity; it is a particular concern for the most common form of breast cancer, hormone receptor–positive postmenopausal disease…we need a better understanding of the interrelated roles of not only calorie-restricted diets but also specific dietary composition(s) and various exercise programs deployed in specific patient groups…Overweight and obesity are a growing global challenge and the increased burden of malignant disease, to which it contributes, is another one. Their report helps focus our thinking and motivates us to pursue a deeper understanding of why overweight and obesity are a problem so that we can plan more effective and thoughtful responses.”

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