Migraine Sufferers May Have Lower Risk Of Breast Cancer, But Local Expert Is Skeptical

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Women suffering from migraines have a decreased risk of breast cancer, according to a new study. This was welcomed as a rare example of good news for some local women who get migraines, but one area neurologist has her doubts.

Women suffering from migraines have a decreased risk of breast cancer, according to a new study. This was welcomed as a rare example of good news for some local women who get migraines, but one area neurologist has her doubts.

Dr. Christopher Li, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, was the senior author on the study, which was published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

“We looked at this association because both breast cancer and migraines have a hormonal component,” he said. “When estrogen levels fall, [migraine sufferers] have attacks. And 80 percent of pregnant migraine sufferers in their third trimesters [when estrogen levels are high] don’t experience any migraines at all.”

Li and his colleagues contacted women who were in a cancer registry system in the Pacific Northwest as well as controls who did not have breast cancer, and asked them whether they had ever experienced migraines. Women who reported a clinical diagnosis of migraines had a 32 percent reduced risk of having breast cancer.

The study intrigued Chicago resident Jan Sachs, 54, who has suffered from migraines for 45 years.

“I read the information and it really makes you wonder what the connection is,” she said. “If this is truly a benefit, I’m glad.”

However, Dr. Susan Rubin, director of the Women’s Neurology Center at Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, is skeptical.

“I found it very hard to figure out how they got their statistics,” she said. “They made a leap they probably shouldn’t have made as far as their final conclusions.”

Rubin said that she thinks the study showed that patients with breast cancer were less likely to report having had migraines, not that having migraines reduces your risk of cancer. Another weakness is that they’re relying on women to remember if and when they had migraines, not actual records of attacks.

Even if Rubin doesn’t quite support the numbers in this particular study, she would like to see further investigation into a possible relationship between migraines and breast cancer.

“It raises some questions, [such as] whether the hormonal changes that increase the risk of migraine decrease the risk of breast cancer,” she said. “With breast cancer, your overall exposure to estrogen affects your risk, whereas with migraines it’s the fluctuation of hormones.”

Rubin speculated that perhaps migraine sufferers experience higher high levels and lower low levels of hormones throughout their cycles, and maybe that broad swing makes them less likely to develop breast cancer.

The migraine specialist said she’s not sure whether she will start sharing the results of her study with her patients, and is condoning continued caution on the subject of migraines and hormones.

“I wouldn’t want this to signal to sufferers that they need to be less diligent or that they’re really at lower risk,” Rubin said.

Despite her optimism about the study, Sachs agrees. “This won’t change anything about my screening [for breast cancer],” she said. “I wouldn’t let my guard down."

Hazel Reese, 64, of Chicago, who has been suffering from migraines for 51 years, added that she’s just happy to see anybody studying the topic of migraines.

“There’s not enough attention given to migraines, so any type of study they can do is good,” she said. “I think that this may be something to look into – I don’t have breast cancer or any signs of it.”

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