According to results presented at the Third International Symposium on the Molecular Biology of Breast Cancer and published in Breast Cancer Research, women who start smoking young and continue to smoke are at a significantly increased risk of developing breast cancer than their counterparts, even if they do not drink alcohol.

Since breast cancer is such a commonly diagnosed malignancy in the United States (over 200,000 women annually), methods to prevent the disease from occurring altogether is an area of intense research. Results from previous studies have indicated that women who consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. In addition, studies have also indicated that smoking may increase the risk of various types of cancers other than lung cancer; however, the association between smoking and breast cancer has remained unclear. To single out smoking as a possible factor in increasing the risk of breast cancer, researchers from Norway recently conducted a study that involved women who did not drink alcohol.

The study included nearly 19,300 women aged between 30 to 50 years. These women did not drink alcohol (never-drinkers). Among them, 214 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Those who had smoked for at least 20 years and had initiated smoking early in life had significantly increased risks of developing breast cancer compared to those women who had never smoked. Specifically, those who smoked for at least 20 years and initiated smoking prior to their first birth had a 75% increased risk of developing breast cancer; women who smoked prior to their first menstrual period (menarche) had a 66% increased risk of developing breast cancer; and those who initiated smoking before the age of 15 had over double the risk of developing breast cancer. Conversely, women who had smoked for 20 years, but had started smoking after their first birth, did not have an increased risk of breast cancer compared to women who had never smoked.

The researchers concluded that women who do not drink alcohol but smoked for at least 20 years and who initiate smoking early in life (particularly prior to their first birth, menarche, or the age of 15 years) have a significantly increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who do not smoke. Women who started smoking early and have smoked for at least 20 years may wish to speak with their physician regarding their individual risks of developing breast cancer as well as a screening program.

Reference: Gram I, Braaten T, Adami H, Lund E, Weiderpass E. Cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk among non-drinking women. Proceedings from the Third International Symposium on the Molecular Biology of Breast Cancer. Molde, Norway, 22–26 June 2005. Published in the Breast Cancer Research. 2005, 7(Suppl 2):P1.01. doi:10.1186/bcr1088

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