Background: Circumstantial evidence links endogenous estrogens to increased risk of breast cancer in women, but direct epidemiologic support is limited. In particular, only a few small prospective studies have addressed this issue.
Purpose: Our purpose was to assess breast cancer risk in relation to circulating levels of the two major endogenous estrogens, estrone and estradiol, measured before the clinical onset of the disease.
Methods: The association between serum levels of estrogens and the risk of breast cancer was examined in a prospective cohort study of 14,291 New York City women, 35-65 years of age, who received screening for breast cancer at the time of blood sampling and who had not been diagnosed with breast cancer. During the first 5 1/2 years of study, we identified 130 breast cancers among the postmenopausal group (7063 women, 35,509 person-years). The case subjects and twice as many postmenopausal control subjects were included in a case-control study nested within the cohort. Biochemical analyses for percent free estradiol, percent estradiol bound to sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), total estradiol, estrone, and follicle-stimulating hormone were performed on sera that had been kept at -80 degrees C since sampling.
Results: For increasing quartiles of total estradiol, the odds ratio (ORs) of breast cancer, as adjusted for Quetelet index (weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters), were 1.0, 0.9, 1.8, and 1.8 (P value for trend = .06); the ORs for increasing quartiles of estrone were 1.0, 2.2, 3.7, and 2.5 (P value for trend = .06). For increasing quartiles of free estradiol, defined as the fraction of estradiol that is not bound to proteins, the Quetelet index-adjusted ORs of breast cancer were 1.0, 1.4, 3.0, and 2.9 (P value for trend < .01). When we considered the percent of estradiol bound to SHBG, the Quetelet index-adjusted ORs were 1.0, 0.70, 0.40, and 0.32 (P value for trend < .01), thus suggesting a strong protective effect. These associations persisted or became even stronger when analyses were restricted to women whose samples had been drawn 2 or more years before breast cancer diagnosis.
Conclusions: These data represent the first confirmation in a large prospective epidemiologic study of a link between circulating estrogens and breast cancer risk. Although estrogen levels appeared to fall within the conventional limits of normality in all women under study, those who subsequently developed breast cancer tended to show higher levels of estrone, total estradiol, and free estradiol, and a lower percent of estradiol bound to SHBG than women who remained free of cancer.
Implications: Factors that increase endogenous estrogen production or reduce the binding of estradiol to SHBG may increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer later in life.