Background: Patients with breast cancer have a threefold increase in the risk that a second breast cancer will develop. Radiation treatment for the initial cancer can result in moderately high doses to the contralateral breast, possibly contributing to this heightened risk.
Methods: We conducted a case-control study in a cohort of 41,109 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1935 and 1982 in Connecticut. We reviewed the medical records of 655 women in whom a second breast cancer developed five or more years after the initial tumor and compared their radiation exposure with that of 1189 matched controls from the cohort who did not have a second cancer. The dose of radiation to the contralateral breast was estimated from the original radiotherapy records. Among the exposed women, the average radiation dose to the contralateral breast was 2.82 Gy (maximum, 7.10).
Results: Overall, 23 percent of the women who had a second breast cancer and 20 percent of the controls had received radiotherapy (relative risk of a second breast cancer associated with radiotherapy, 1.19). Among women who survived for at least 10 years, radiation treatment was associated with a small but marginally significant elevation in the risk of a second breast cancer (relative risk, 1.33); the risk increased significantly with the dose of radiation. An increase in risk in association with radiotherapy was evident only among women who were under 45 years of age when they were treated (relative risk, 1.59) and not among older women (relative risk, 1.01).
Conclusions: Radiotherapy for breast cancer contributes little to the already high risk of a second cancer in the opposite breast. Fewer than 3 percent of all second breast cancers in this study could be attributed to previous radiation treatment; the risk, however, was significantly increased among women who underwent irradiation at a relatively young age (less than 45 years). Radiation exposure after the age of 45 entails little, if any, risk of radiation-induced breast cancer.