Night Shift Work and Risk of Breast Cancer

Curr Environ Health Rep. 2017 Sep;4(3):325-339. doi: 10.1007/s40572-017-0155-y.


Purpose of review: Night work is increasingly common and a necessity in certain sectors of the modern 24-h society. The embedded exposure to light-at-night, which suppresses the nocturnal hormone melatonin with oncostatic properties and circadian disruption, i.e., misalignment between internal and external night and between cells and organs, are suggested as main mechanisms involved in carcinogenesis. In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified shift work that involves circadian disruption as probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence from eight epidemiologic studies on breast cancer, in addition to sufficient evidence from animal experiments. The aim of this review is a critical update of the IARC evaluation, including subsequent and the most recent epidemiologic evidence on breast cancer risk after night work.

Recent findings: After 2007, in total nine new case-control studies, one case-cohort study, and eight cohort studies are published, which triples the number of studies. Further, two previous cohorts have been updated with extended follow-up. The assessment of night shift work is different in all of the 26 existing studies. There is some evidence that high number of consecutive night shifts has impact on the extent of circadian disruption, and thereby increased breast cancer risk, but this information is missing in almost all cohort studies. This in combination with short-term follow-up of aging cohorts may explain why some cohort studies may have null findings. The more recent case-control studies have contributed interesting results concerning breast cancer subtypes in relation to both menopausal status and different hormonal subtypes. The large differences in definitions of both exposure and outcome may contribute to the observed heterogeneity of results from studies of night work and breast cancer, which overall points in the direction of an increased breast cancer risk, in particular after over 20 years of night shifts. Overall, there is a tendency of increased risk of breast cancer either after over 20 years of night shift or after shorter periods with many consecutive shifts. More epidemiologic research using standardized definitions of night work metrics and breast cancer subtypes as well as other cancers is needed in order to improve the epidemiologic evidence in combination with animal models of night work. Also, evidence-based preventive interventions are needed.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Circadian disruption; Light-at-night; Melatonin; Shift work.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Shift Work Schedule*
  • Work Schedule Tolerance*