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Older Moms and Breast Cancer Risk

Elizabeth Edwards’ Breast Cancer Raises Issues About Older Motherhood, Fertility Drugs
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WebMD Health News

Nov. 5, 2004 -- Still feeling the excitement of Election Day 2004, the nation heard the news that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of defeated Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, has breast cancer.

The report, which surfaced Thursday, revealed that the 55-year-old mother of three had a biopsy that confirmed invasive ductal breast cancer -- one of the most common forms of the disease.

Though it's currently impossible to pinpoint a cause behind breast cancer, medical research has shown there to be an association between breast cancer and certain factors, such as older age, family history of breast cancer, having your first child after age 30 or never having children, starting periods before age 12, beginning menopause after age 50, and being overweight. And there are likely many other unknown factors -- and many are likely beyond a woman's control.

The question on the minds of some experts is whether or not Edwards' pregnancies at age 48 and 50 and methods she used to get pregnant could have played a role.

"In light of what we now know about links between cancer and late-age pregnancy, and more recently, about hormone use and cancer, it's a valid question. Unfortunately, it's one that is, at best, difficult to answer," says Julia Smith, MD, director of the brand new Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention Program at the NYU Cancer Institute in New York City.

Smith tells WebMD that what we do know thus far is that the risk of breast cancer increases as a woman ages, and it also rises in relation to the age at which she has her first child, beginning at age 30. Also important, she says, is a woman's age when her last child is born.

"The older a woman is when she has her first baby and her last baby, the greater her risk of breast cancer in the future," says Smith.

According to news reports, Edwards was in her early 30s when her first two children were born -- a son, Wade, who passed away in an accident in 1996, and her daughter, Catherine, now 22. Edwards was approximately 48 when she became pregnant with her second daughter, Emma Claire, and about 50 when she conceived her son Jack.

"These are the kinds of numbers that give rise for concern," says Smith.

Another concern: The method that was used to help John and Elizabeth Edwards conceive their last two children. Elizabeth Edwards' advanced age prompted brief media speculation about the use of donor eggs. Since it's a subject she has not discussed in public, it's not known if that path was taken.

However, what she has reportedly acknowledged is the use of fertility medications -- hormone-based drugs that stimulate ovarian egg production. The medications are also used to encourage maturation of the uterine lining necessary to sustain a pregnancy. And this, say experts, places yet another huge question mark in her breast cancer risk profile.

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