The Connection Between Migraines and Breast Cancer

woman in bed with migraine headache

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Did you know that having migraines might lower your risk of developing breast cancer in the future?

While migraines and breast cancer are vastly unique medical conditions, there is one major factor that links or connects them - the sex hormone, estrogen.

Breast Cancer and Estrogen

Breast cancer occurs when mutated cancer cells grow uncontrollably, usually in the ducts and lobules of the breast tissue.

A greater lifetime exposure to estrogen increases your risk of breast cancer. So anything that increases estrogen in the body can potentially increase your risk of breast cancer. Examples of conditions that increase estrogen include:

  • A longer lifetime number of menstrual cycles (menarche prior to age 12, menopause after age 55)
  • Postmenopausal obesity, in which adipose or fat tissue is converted to estrogen
  • Combined Hormone Therapy

Migraines and Estrogen

Migraine occurrence varies in women based on their menstrual cycle, their menopausal state, and whether they are pregnant. This change in migraine frequency and severity may be related to a woman’s fluctuating estrogen levels.

For example, migraine frequency increases immediately before or during a women’s menstrual cycle (menstrual migraines), when her estrogen levels have decreased. On the other hand, many women experience relief of their migraines during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, a high estrogen state.

The Controversial Connection Between Migraines and Breast Cancer

Both migraines and breast cancer are estrogen-mediated, so there may be a link between migraine occurrence and a lower risk of developing breast cancer. One of the first studies to examine this relationship was in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. This study found that women with self-reported migraines had a 33 percent reduced risk of developing hormone-receptor-positive invasive ductal and lobular carcinoma in the postmenopausal state. The study, however, did not control for NSAID use, a common class of medications used to treat migraines - and several studies have suggested that NSAID use may on its own lower breast cancer risk.

Another study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology also found that postmenopausal women with self-reported migraines had a reduced risk of breast cancer. This study found a 17 percent lower risk of developing invasive hormone-receptor-positive cancers. Additionally, this reduced risk was independent of NSAID use, as well as the use of alcohol and caffeine, two common migraine triggers.

In 2014, another study in Cancer Causes and Control examined over 700 cases of breast cancer. The researchers found that compared to women without a history of migraines, women with had an extended history of migraines ( over 30 years) had a 60 percent lower risk of developing estrogen receptor-positive ductal breast cancer.

In addition, women who had their first migraine before the age of 20 had half the risk of developing estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer (both ductal and lobular) compared to non-migraineurs (females). Finally, women with migraine with aura were also less likely (about a third) to develop estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer (both ductal and lobular).

On the flip side, a 2013 study in Cancer Causes and Control over 7,000 migraineurs did not find any significant relationship between migraines and risk of breast cancer.

Of course, all these studies have limitations, and if picked apart may explain their unique results. The big picture here is that this topic and interesting relationship needs to be examined more closely.

The Bottom Line

Remember, a link implies a potential relationship or association. It does not mean that one medical condition directly causes or prevents another. Further ongoing studies are needed to examine the complex relationship between breast cancer and migraines.

As for your own health, continue to remain proactive in your healthcare. Discuss your risk factors for breast cancer with your physician. Review how a healthy lifestyle, such as weight loss, can reduce your migraine suffering in addition to your risk of breast cancer.

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