Pubertal timing and breast cancer risk in the Sister Study cohort

Breast Cancer Res. 2020 Oct 27;22(1):112. doi: 10.1186/s13058-020-01326-2.


Background: Earlier age at menarche is an established risk factor for breast cancer. While age at menarche has been fairly stable over the past half-century, age at breast development (thelarche) has continued to decrease. Recently, earlier age at thelarche and a longer time between thelarche and menarche (pubertal tempo) were shown to be associated with increased breast cancer risk. Our objective was to examine how breast cancer risk was associated with pubertal timing and tempo in a prospective US cohort.

Methods: Women ages 35-74 years without a history of breast cancer, but who had a sister previously diagnosed with breast cancer, were enrolled in the Sister Study from 2003 to 2009 (N = 50,884). At enrollment, participants reported their ages at thelarche and menarche. Pubertal tempo was age at menarche minus age at thelarche. We estimated adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for each pubertal milestone and risk of breast cancer (invasive or ductal carcinoma in situ) using Cox proportional hazards regression. We examined whether associations between age at thelarche and breast cancer risk were modified by birth cohort, race/ethnicity, weight at age 10, and extent of breast cancer family history, as characterized by a Bayesian score based on first-degree family structure.

Results: During follow-up (mean = 9.3 years), 3295 eligible women were diagnosed with breast cancer. Early ages at thelarche (HR = 1.23, 95% CI 1.03-1.46 for < 10 vs. 12-13 years) and menarche (HR = 1.10, 95% CI 1.01-1.20 for < 12 vs. 12-13 years) were positively associated with breast cancer risk. Pubertal tempo was not associated with breast cancer risk (HR = 0.99, 95% CI 0.97-1.02 per 1-year longer tempo). When considering early thelarche (< 10 years) and early menarche (< 12 years) jointly, women with both had a 30% greater risk of breast cancer compared with women with neither risk factor (95% CI 1.07-1.57). The association between age at thelarche and breast cancer risk did not significantly vary by birth cohort, race/ethnicity, childhood weight, or Bayesian family history score.

Conclusions: Earlier ages at thelarche and menarche may enhance susceptibility to breast carcinogenesis. Age at thelarche is an important risk factor to consider given secular trends towards earlier development.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Breast development; Menarche; Puberty; Thelarche.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight*
  • Breast / growth & development*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Menarche*
  • Middle Aged
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Prospective Studies
  • Puberty*
  • Risk Factors
  • Siblings*
  • Time Factors*
  • United States / epidemiology