Center News

Study links migraines and lower breast-cancer risk

Epidemiologist Christopher Li and colleagues associate fluctuations in levels of circulating hormones with migraines and breast cancer

Nov. 10, 2008
Dr. Christopher Li

In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Christopher Li and colleagues found that women with a history of migraines had a 30 percent lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who did not have a history of such headaches.

Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

Women who suffer from migraines may take at least some comfort in a recent, first-of-its-kind study that suggests a history of such headaches is associated with a significantly lower risk of breast cancer. Dr. Christopher Li and Center colleagues report these findings in the November issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

“We found that, overall, women who had a history of migraines had a 30 percent lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who did not have a history of such headaches,” said Li, a breast-cancer epidemiologist in the Public Health Sciences Division.

In particular, migraine history appeared to reduce the risk of the most common subtypes of breast cancer: those that are estrogen-receptor and/or progesterone-receptor positive. Such tumors have estrogen and/or progesterone receptors, or docking sites, on the surface of their cells, which makes them more responsive to hormone-blocking drugs than tumors that lack such receptors.

The biological mechanism behind the association between migraines and breast cancer is not fully known, but Li and colleagues suspect that it has to do with fluctuations in 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,” Li said. “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,” he said. Conversely, pregnancy—a high-estrogen state—is associated with a significant decrease in migraines. “By the third trimester of pregnancy, 80 percent of migraine sufferers do not have these episodes,” he said. Estrogen is known to stimulate the growth of hormonally sensitive breast cancer.

While this study represents the first of its kind to look at a potential connection between migraines and breast cancer, Li and colleagues have data from two other studies that in preliminary analyses appear to confirm these findings, he said.

“While these results need to be interpreted with caution, they point to a possible new factor that may be related to breast-cancer risk. This gives us a new avenue to explore the biology behind risk reduction. Hopefully this could help stimulate other ideas and extend what we know about the biology of the disease.”

The National Cancer Institute funded the research, which also involved researchers from the Hutchinson Center’s Human Biology Division and the University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Neurology.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.