Understanding the Connection Between Smoking and Breast Cancer

Young woman smoking cigarette outside office building
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The precise connection between smoking and breast cancer is still unclear, but there does appear to be some sort of link. Let's examine this interesting relationship more closely and explore what it means for you and your health.

Cancer-Containing Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke

The link between smoking and cancers, in general, is undeniable. Cigarette smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals that are absorbed into your body and affect your present and future health. Here are just a few of the 3,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke that are related to cancer:

  • Tar – a sticky substance that is created as tobacco burns. Inhaling while smoking pulls tar into your lungs, where it accumulates over time and causes tissue destruction.
  • Nicotine – an extremely addictive drug that helps cancers grow
  • Nitrosamine – a carcinogenic compound that occurs in tobacco—it has been used in cosmetics, processed meats, pesticides, and latex products.

The Link Between Breast Cancer and Smoking?

Chronic, heavy smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. This risk may be highest in women who start smoking before having their first full-term pregnancy, according to a 2011 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. This may be because breast development is completed during the third trimester of a woman's pregnancy. At this point, a woman's breast cells may be less vulnerable to the carcinogens of tobacco smoke.​

In addition, certain women may be more vulnerable to smoking's effects on the breast than other women, based on their genetic makeup. This means that having a certain gene or genes may put a woman more at risk of developing breast cancer when exposed to smoke.

The link between secondhand smoke and an increased risk of breast cancer is a bit more controversial—but the scientific data is suggestive, so avoiding secondhand smoke is also wise.

It's interesting to note that smoking after menopause may slightly decrease a woman's risk of breast cancer, according to the 2011 study in Archives of Internal Medicine. The authors suggest that smoking potentially has a small anti-estrogen effect. This effect is too little to be noticed in premenopausal women who have higher estrogen levels, but more significant in postmenopausal women, who already have low estrogen levels.

Finally, according to a 2001 study in Chest, smoking may promote the metastasis or spread of breast cancer to a woman's lung.

What Should You Do? 

Stop smoking—easier said than done, but certainly possible. In addition to benefiting your breast health, stopping smoking will help protect you from a number of other cancers and also protect your heart.

Get help to quit smoking, and avoid breathing secondhand smoke.

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