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Migraines: Good for Something

30% Reduction

A study published in the November issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, suggests that women who get migraines lower their risk of break cancer by 30%. The study examined triggers for migraine that have a hormonal component and which are also linked to the development of breast cancer. Christopher Li, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and lead author of the study said, "We now see a plausible relationship between hormones and migraines and breast cancer."

Fluctuating Hormones

Li explains that while the mechanism is still little understood, it is known that both conditions are related to fluctuating levels of hormones. This hormonal component is what makes women more vulnerable to migraines than men. An example of how this hormonal link works is seen in women on the Pill. The pill-free week is always the worst in terms of migraine occurrence in those women using oral contraceptives.

On the other hand, pregnancy lowers the rate of migraines. At the opposite end of the spectrum, an increase in estrogen is known to stimulate hormone-responsive breast cancer.

The researchers looked at data from two studies on 3,412 postmenopausal women between the ages of 55-79 who lived in the Seattle area. Of these participants, 1,938 had invasive breast cancer and 1,474 of them had no breast cancer. It was found that women who had been diagnosed with migraines had a 33% reduced risk of developing IDC (invasive lobular carcinoma) as compared to those women who had no history of migraines. These statistics seemed unaffected by outside factors such as the age at which migraines were first reported or the prescription migraine drug history of the women.

Li feels cautious optimism at discovering a new mechanism that may be related to breast cancer. This may lead to new ways to treat and prevent breast cancer. Li also believes it is possible that there may be a connection between obtaining relief from prescription migraine medication and the reduced rates of breast cancer for migraine patients. There is some evidence that the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) may offer protection against breast cancer. However, Li says this fact is not enough to explain the phenomenon of the large reduction he witnessed. Li also cautions against women taking NSAIDS including aspirin and ibuprofen to forestall the common women's cancer.

Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society reiterates the contention of medical research that there is a connection between estrogen and hormone-responsive breast cancer. He believes that this study points to the fact that the lowered levels of estrogen found in postmenopausal women leads to less frequent migraine headaches. Lichtenfeld contends that migraine sufferers may have always had lower than average estrogen levels and this may be the explanation for their reduced rate of breast cancer. He adds that obesity is another factor to consider, since this too, is linked to increased rates of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. It is a known fact that fat cells produce estrogen.

Despite Lichtenfeld's contentions that estrogen, and not migraines, is the telling factor in who does and doesn't get which hormone-related condition, Li says that his team was, "surprised by the magnitude of the reduction in breast cancer," in women with migraines and says that the study, "is good news in that it identified a potential new protective factor."