Migration patterns and breast cancer risk in Asian-American women

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1993 Nov 17;85(22):1819-27. doi: 10.1093/jnci/85.22.1819.


Background: Breast cancer incidence rates have historically been 4-7 times higher in the United States than in China or Japan, although the reasons remain elusive. When Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino women migrate to the United States, breast cancer risk rises over several generations and approaches that among U.S. Whites.

Purpose: Our objective was to quantify breast cancer risks associated with the various migration patterns of Asian-American women.

Methods: A population-based, case-control study of breast cancer among women of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino ethnicities, aged 20-55 years, was conducted during 1983-1987 in San Francisco-Oakland, California, Los Angeles, California, and Oahu, Hawaii. We successfully interviewed 597 case subjects (70% of those eligible) and 966 control subjects (75%).

Results: A sixfold gradient in breast cancer risk by migration patterns was observed. Asian-American women born in the West had a breast cancer risk 60% higher than Asian-American women born in the East. Among those born in the West, risk was determined by whether their grandparents, especially grandmothers, were born in the East or the West. Asian-American women with three or four grandparents born in the West had a risk 50% higher than those with all grandparents born in the East. Among the Asian-American women born in the East, breast cancer risk was determined by whether their communities prior to migration were rural or urban and by the number of years subsequently lived in the West. Migrants from urban areas had a risk 30% higher than migrants from rural areas. Migrants who had lived in the West for a decade or longer had a risk 80% higher than more recent migrants. Risk was unrelated to age at migration for women migrating at ages less than 36 years. Ethnic-specific incidence rates of breast cancer in the migrating generation were clearly elevated above those in the countries of origin, while rates in Asian-Americans born in the West approximated the U.S. White rate.

Conclusions: Exposure to Western lifestyles had a substantial impact on breast cancer risk in Asian migrants to the United States during their lifetime. There was no direct evidence of an especially susceptible period, during either menarche or early reproductive life.

Implications: Because heterogeneity in breast cancer risk in these ethnic populations is similar to that in international comparisons and because analytic epidemiologic studies offer the opportunity to disentangle correlated exposures, this study should provide new insights into the etiology of breast cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Asian Americans / statistics & numerical data*
  • Breast Neoplasms / ethnology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • China / ethnology
  • Emigration and Immigration / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Japan / ethnology
  • Life Style
  • Middle Aged
  • Philippines / ethnology
  • Risk Factors
  • Rural Health
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Urban Health