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Smoking may increase risk of post-menopausal breast cancer

Smoking increases the risk of breast cancer in older women by almost a fifth, latest US research has suggested.

The discovery, published in the British Journal of Cancer, adds to a growing weight of evidence linking exposure to tobacco smoke with the disease.

US researchers tracked the progress of around 186,000 women aged 50 to 71. They found that those who smoked were 19% more likely to develop breast cancer than never-smokers.

Women who once smoked but then kicked the habit were still 7% more at risk.

The results held true even after accounting for alcohol consumption, which is a major breast cancer risk factor that is more common among smokers.

But in the last few years new findings have led to a U-turn in expert opinion. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded there was “limited evidence” that smoking tobacco can trigger breast cancer.

Last year, researchers from the American Cancer Society reported results showing a 24% higher rate of breast cancer among women who smoked.

The risk was much greater among those who started smoking young, either before they started menstruating or before having their first child.

The new study, published in the , covered a period of around 10 years. During this time, 7,500 of the women were diagnosed with breast cancer.

“More work is now needed to understand the mechanisms behind the link between smoking and breast cancer”

Sarah Nyante

Dr Sarah Nyante, from the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda in Maryland, said: “Our study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests an association between cigarette smoking and increased breast cancer risk.

Sarah Nyante

Sarah Nyante

“Previous studies have investigated this relationship, but questions remained regarding the extent to which other breast cancer risk factors, such as alcohol intake, might influence the results.

“More work is now needed to understand the mechanisms behind the link between smoking and breast cancer in post-menopausal women.”

While other lifestyle factors such as being overweight, drinking alcohol and lack of exercise are all known to increase breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women, the role of smoking has been more difficult to unravel.

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer worldwide. The habit is linked not only to lung cancer but cancers of the larynx, oesophagus, oral cavity, pharynx, bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach and bowel.

In the past 50 years, it is estimated that 6.5 million people in the UK have have died from tobacco-related diseases.

“It may increase a post-menopausal woman’s risk of breast cancer if she smokes or has smoked in the past”

Julie Sharp

Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, said: “Evidence remains inconsistent as to whether smoking causes breast cancer after as well as before the menopause.

“But this study suggests it may increase a post-menopausal woman’s risk of breast cancer if she smokes or has smoked in the past,” she said.

“Quitting is not easy but, given that smokers lose an average of 10 years of life compared to non-smokers, the benefits are huge.”

Readers' comments (3)

  • And so many young women smoke and binge drink, plus promiscuity-all adds up to a very much increased chance of breast, cervical and skin cancer. Wake up girls, stop killing yourself

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • at the end of the day, they are just fools. why damage yourself voluntarily?

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  • Smoking causes cancer, did we not know this already?

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