Studies have shown that a pregnancy condition called preeclampsia could indicate a reduced risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
Most mothers have heard of preeclampsia. The pregnancy complication occurs in 5% to 8% of pregnant mothers, and is usually diagnosed after 20 weeks gestation. One of the hallmark symptoms is raised blood pressure that dissipates after the baby is born.
In fact, the only cure for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.
But why would raised blood pressure during pregnancy correlate with a protection against breast cancer risk?
Preeclampsia & Potential Complications
Besides high blood pressure, other symptoms of preeclampsia may include sudden edema (swelling) in the face and hands, severe headaches, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, and vision problems — but these can also be typical pregnancy side effects for some women. Symptoms like excess protein in urine, kidney or liver problems, a decrease in urination, and upper abdominal pain can also be symptoms.
Potential complications include pre-term birth and low birth weight; placental abruption, which can lead to heavy bleeding and life-threatening complications for mom and baby; HELLP syndrome, which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count, and indicates damage to multiple organ systems; other organ damage; cardiovascular disease; and eclampsia, which presents with the same symptoms of preeclampsia plus seizures, and necessitates immediate delivery of the baby, regardless of where mom is in the pregnancy. One study showed that a woman diagnosed with preeclampsia was as much at risk for a cardiovascular event as someone who had smoked most of their life.
However, most mothers who develop preeclampsia deliver healthy babies. Regularly visiting your OBGYN — and having them check your blood pressure and take a urine sample every visit — can help catch preeclampsia symptoms early. The earlier the onset of symptoms, the more risk it poses to mom and baby.
The upside of this potentially alarming pregnancy condition? Studies have shown that women who have it experience a 15% to 20% decreased risk of breast cancer risk later in life.
The Link between breast Cancer and Preeclampsia
A 2017 study from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging revealed that women who had both a history of preeclampsia and a particularly common gene variant experienced a great reduction in their breast cancer risk. Women with two T alleles of a particular growth factor receptor gene had a 74% lower risk of HER2+ breast cancer (the most common type) when compared to women who had no T alleles. Women who had preeclampsia before age 30 had a 90% lower risk.
This increased protection against breast cancer may be due to how high blood pressure during pregnancy changes the levels of a woman’s hormones and growth factors. This in turn could lead to permanent changes in their breast tissue. The research team is now studying breast tissue samples of women with this increased level of protection.
“These study results may have a more immediate application in risk assessment,” Mark Powell, lead author of the study, said. “Research has shown this decrease in risk applies to women with gestational hypertension who carry the protective gene variant as well as those with preeclampsia. It is estimated that there are 9 million women in the U.S. whose risk could now be more accurately assessed, resulting in enhanced individualized breast cancer screening protocols.”
Dr. Anne Gingery, a professor of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, is also looking at how preeclampsia could reduce breast cancer risk. During the course of her research, she found that two specific proteins released into the blood stream from the placentas of preeclampsia patients could posses anti-cancer properties. They worked by suppressing a specific factor that fueled breast cancer occurrence and growth.
Another study found that the gender of the baby the mom delivered decreased breast cancer risk. Researchers in Norway looked at 700,000 women with preeclampsia and found slightly reduced breast cancer risk if the baby delivered was male. In premature births, mom had four times reduced risk for breast cancer if the baby was male, compared to moms of female babies.
And lastly, a 1999 study found that older women diagnosed with preeclampsia had a higher protection against breast cancer than younger mothers. This contradicts the 2017 study that found women under 30 had increased protection against breast cancer than their older counterparts.
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.