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Migraines May Cut Breast Cancer Risk

Study Shows Women With Migraine Headaches May Have Lower Risk of Breast Cancer
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 6, 2008 -- Women who suffer from migraine headaches may be at significantly lower risk of developing breast cancer, a new study shows.

"Many of the triggers of migraine in women are known to be hormonally related, and also are important in the development of breast cancer," Christopher Li, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, tells WebMD. "We now see a plausible relationship between hormones and migraines and breast cancer."

The study, published in the November issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, shows that women with a history of migraines have a 30% lower risk of breast cancer than women not diagnosed with the headaches.

Li, the lead author of the study, says the biological mechanism behind the association is not fully known, but it likely has to do with fluctuations in the levels of circulating hormones.

"Migraines seem to have a hormonal component in that they occur more frequently in women than in men, and some of their known triggers are associated with hormones," he says. "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."

But pregnancy, a high estrogen state, is associated with a significant decrease in migraines, he tells WebMD. And estrogen, he adds, is known to stimulate the growth of hormonally sensitive breast cancer.

The researchers combined data from 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. Information on migraine history was limited to cases diagnosed by health professionals.

"Women who reported a clinical diagnosis of migraine had a 33 percent reduced risk of IDC [invasive ductal carcinoma] and a 32 percent reduced risk of ILC [invasive lobular carcinoma] compared with women with no history of migraine," the authors write. "These reductions in risk did not vary substantially by age at migraine diagnosis or by history of ever using prescription migraine medications."

Li says the conclusions of the study, the first to look at a possible connection between migraines and breast cancer, should be interpreted with caution, but in an optimistic light.

"This potentially points to new mechanisms that may be related to breast cancer prevention," he tells WebMD. "If we can uncover what those are, it may lead to new ways to treat breast cancer."

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