Life Without Baby

Filling the silence in the motherhood discussion

Childless Women and Breast Cancer Risk December 4, 2010

I went to my doctor for a check-up this week and the subject of breast exams came up. My doctor (he’s relatively new to me) asked me if I had children and when I told him I didn’t, he said, “Well having children and breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of breast cancer.” It was all I could do to say, “Well then, I’ll just get right on that!”

In my doctor’s defense, it was just a passing comment and not any kind of accusation that I was neglecting my health by not having children, but I couldn’t help but think that this was just another strike against childlessness. Regardless I decided it was my civic duty to research this and report back to you.

A Google search of “childless breast cancer” turned up more contradicting facts than a political sex scandal and starling little trustworthy information. I found this:

Women who had their first full-term pregnancy after age 30, and women who have never borne a child have a greater risk of developing breast cancer. During pregnancy, estrogen levels surge so high that there is a small immediate risk of breast cancer, but the long-term effect, particularly with breast-feeding, decreases risk.

Starting at about age 45, childless women are at an increased risk for breast cancer in comparison with women who have had children, with the risk being from 20 to 70 percent greater.

That’s a big increase in risk, but the source was a pharmaceutical company selling breast cancer preventative medicine, and I couldn’t find similar numbers elsewhere. I did discover that women over 5” 7” tall have a greater risk (two strikes against me) and this article that confirmed that childless women were at greater risk, as were women with more than five children, teenage mothers, and mothers with children closer than 18 months apart. So a tall teenage mother of five or more children under age 7 is basically up the creek.

I also found a blog post on the same subject from two years ago! The fact that this two-year-old post hit the front page of my search suggests that this topic isn’t getting a lot of love

If you happen to have these statistics, please share them, but the bottom line is this: There are so many conflicting risk factors; some us will get lucky and some of us won’t. All we can do is take care of ourselves and check those breasts ladies! I will confess to not being disciplined about doing regular self-exams. I do it when I remember, but not on any regular schedule. That ends this month. Here’s a useful link that offers e-mail reminders to do your monthly self-exam as well as instructions on how to do it.


14 Responses to “Childless Women and Breast Cancer Risk”

  1. Kathleen Guthrie Says:

    I don’t have facts or statistics, but my doctor years ago also told me that childless women have a higher rate of cancers of the whole reproductive system. It just made me think that God can be really cruel. What we can do is INSIST that we get tested (even though our HMOs now say we don’t “need” regular mammograms or PAP smears). Be your own advocate, ladies!

    • Sue Says:

      I saw your post after I posted mine, Kathleen, and honestly I had heard that too. I personally know women who fit the bill, but I didn’t want to add more depressing statistics for the childless. But you’re right, it’s important to stress that women have all of their preventative testing done. Here’s a link that states your risk for uterine cancer is increased by never having children. Although they don’t say by how much.

      My sister is unfortunately facing having a hysterectomy at age 39 after a biopsy discovered she is full of precancerous cells. She never had children, but has all of the other risk factors as well.

  2. Sue Says:

    Scary stuff. 20-70% really??? I’m sure you’re right about the statistics not being a trustworthy source so I’ll be checking back to see if anyone finds more information. Until then I’ll just have to hope my inability to reach things off high shelves will help ward off breast cancer.

    Thank you for the link for the monthly reminder. As much as I might pat myself on the back for being a good patient and going for my annual exam every year, I totally fail in the monthly self exam department.

  3. Kathryn Says:

    I’m pretty heavily into alternative medicine and am very biased against conventional medicine. Many of my current limitations with disability are directly related to poor judgments of medical personnel and my trust in them. I also worked hospital for 10 years and there is much that goes on behind the scenes that gets covered up to keep medicine “looking good” and also what passes for research is often very biased, which i have witnessed first hand.

    I don’t have answers to your question. However, there are many questions to be asked about studies before you can trust them.

    One, (as you mentioned a drug company sponsored the study) follow the money. Financial interests can significantly skew the results. Two, what is the study actually testing? There are tons of reports of studies showing vitamins made no difference in the health of people. But often these studies are comparing apples and oranges, i.e., they test synthetic (man made) chemicals equivalents of naturally occurring vitamins without noting the difference. I could go on and on, but these two items compose numerous problems with our “gold standard” way of testing.

    These tests that show that breast cancer is higher in non-moms, how were these tests preformed? There are so many types of ways to compile “research” and they are not all created equal, nor are they all to be trusted, but we often do not know how the study was compiled. I wish i could go into detail about how these statistics are manipulated to create fear in people. “Statistical significance” can be manipulated a great deal. One short example: If a study shows that X increases the cancer potential from .05% to .1% (going from 1 person in 100,000 having a risk to 1 person in 10,000 having that risk) means 100% increase!

    There are so many different types of research. Often what is found has only the smallest thread of connectivity, but if a scientist says, “We found evidence that _______ might __________” then mainstream media tends to report that with headlines and simplify the info in a way that might not be upheld by the actual research. Even doctors are confused by this.

    Many doctors do not have the training to read the research done and comprehend it, so they rely on the company selling the drug to provide them with the info. But often this info doesn’t line up with the actual data. If you are interested in this, check out the book Overdosed America by John Abramson who is a medical doctor trained in statistics who found this very thing and went on to research and write a book about how we are being misled by these statistics. The book is about 8 years old not, but very relevant to mainstream medical practice in the US.

    Obviously i could write pages if not entire chapters on these issues. I feel very strongly about it. One last parting shot, i do not believe mammography to be safe, for several reasons. But it makes a lot of money for the places that invested in this technology. If you feel strongly about being screened, there is a safer and more comfortable thermography, tho it is not widely available. Too many places have money sunk into continuing the mammography screenings, tho there is a chance that mammography itself can cause the cancer (by delivering x-rays to very sensitive tissue) it is seeking to find.

    This is a great site and lots of info on many topics if you want to peruse further.

    Thanks for tolerating me. :/

    • lmanterfield Says:

      Wow. Clearly you’ve done a lot of research. I really appreciate you sharing your information. I think the main lesson here is to stay informed, think for ourselves, and make our own decisions.

  4. Robin Says:

    I worked in communications for a major cancer center and it is true, according to the NIH, “Women who have never had children or who had them only after age 30 have an increased risk for breast cancer. Being pregnant more than once or becoming pregnant at an early age reduces your risk of breast cancer.”

    Read more here:

  5. Mali Says:

    I was feeling good about having a mammogram booked for Monday morning. Then I read Kathryn’s note. Now I’m depressed and need chocolate or wine or both.

  6. loribeth Says:

    Concerns about the effects that large doses of fertility drugs were having on my health were one reason why we decided to stop treatment when we did. On the other hand, I took b/c pills for 13 years before we began ttc & supposedly that offers some protection against cancer. Who knows what to believe??

  7. lmanterfield Says:

    Clearly this is a really broad subject with so much conflicting advice available. Scaring ourselves silly that we are at greater risk isn’t the answer. Staying informed, considering other points of view, and being responsible for making appropriate decisions for oursleves is about all we can do. Thanks for all the great information everyone.

  8. Kate B Says:

    Yeah – I figure I’m in trouble. Never carried to term, never breast fed, lots of fertility drugs and my mother had breast cancer. My odds are good.

  9. Iris D Says:

    I had my first mammogram last year at 41. I got called back for a magnification mammogram because they found microcalcifications. The second mammogram revealed that the microcalcifications were not clustered or of a shape that would be considered suspicious. I was relieved when I received the radiologist report that said benign, come back next year. Then a week later my gynocologist’s office called because I have dense breasts and they wanted me to get a sonogram. I have fibrocystic breasts with lots of cysts, but nothing else was detected. I did check in with the breast surgeon who also looked at the radiologist’s report. This year the breast surgeon’s office called to schedule me for my yearly mammogram and magnification. Needless to say, breast cancer is a scary topic, and once you have been called back after a “suspicious” mammogram, even getting your yearly mammogram brings on loads of anxiety. There is nothing to do, but try and stay on top of your yearly check ups. I’ve also heard that vitamin D 1-2,000 miligrams has been shown to reduce the risk, and I plan to talk to my doctor about baby aspirin which is also believed to be a preventative. Statistics aside, I’ve had 2 childless aunts with no breast cancer issues (one passed away at the end of 2009 at age 91, and the other is healthy and vibrant at 83), but one of my aunts, with 3 children (the first pregnancies in her 20s, the last at 42) did develop breast cancer (she passed away two months ago at 88 from heart disease). Sadly, I think it is the luck of the draw and the only thing we can do is not fret, but be proactive. I don’t always do monthly self exams, but since last year, I have been more mindful to check with more frequency.

    • cora Says:

      I am a 36 year old childless female, interested in this topic as well.
      I would like to share that I had an aunt who was never married and never have children live to be 100 years old. She never had any form of cancer except some skin cancer in her late 90’s that they removed.

  10. Carolyne Says:

    There is one excellent risk reducer for breast cancer in the childless, and that is to induce lactation. The tissues of the breast were obviously designed for it, and any adult women with one non-damaged breast and a functioning pituary gland can do it. Excess milk can be given to milk banks as it is biologically indentical minus the colustrum phase.

  11. Carrie Says:

    Until recently in human history, women began menstruating at around age 15 or 16 and were intermittently pregnant for the next 15 or 20 years. As a result, they had far fewer periods than modern women with few or no children. The more you menstruate, the more frequently your uterus, endometrium and breasts go through that monthly burst of cell division, thus increasing the lifetime chance of a rogue cancer cell taking hold. It’s not a death sentence; get your yearly exams and take care of yourself and don’t worry about it too much. (That’s what I tell myself, as a childless 50 year-old.) For a good layperson’s discussion of the issue, read Malcom Gladwell’s essay “John Rock’s Error.” Fascinating stuff.

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