Background: Cross-cultural studies have long suggested that the high incidence of breast cancer in developed Western countries may be linked to the high prevalence of obesity and to high total energy intake. Recent studies show that hyperinsulinemia, increased concentration of insulin-like growth factor 1 and greater abdominal fat accumulation are markers of high risk for breast cancer. Increased serum concentrations of free estradiol and free testosterone are similar risk markers and are frequent concomitants of hyperinsulinemia.
Mechanisms: The mechanism by which such metabolic-endocrine abnormality may promote mammary carcinogenesis is uncertain, but its effect is likely to predominate in the years approaching the menopause when obesity is common among Western women. In obese subjects, enlargement of adipose deposits is known to produce an excess of free fatty acids and tumor necrosis factor alpha, both of which may be involved in the pathogenesis of insulin resistance. In middle-aged women, the concomitants of hyperinsulinemia may activate invasive and proliferative activity in preneoplastic mammary lesions such as in situ duct carcinoma of the comedo type. This will enhance the risk of progression to invasive breast cancer, which is likely to manifest clinically mainly after the menopause.
Conclusion: Weight reduction combined with a program of regular physical exercise has been shown to reduce both estrogen and insulin concentrations in obese women and such a regimen might be tested in clinical trials for an effect on breast cancer risk in obese women. Intervention is best begun around the age of 45 y, this being the age when in situ duct carcinoma would normally begin to show evidence of spontaneous involution in women without clinical evidence of invasive breast cancer. International Journal of Obesity (2000) 24, 527-533