A European Society of Cardiology (ESC) study released in August 2017 examining the relationship between breast cancer and high cholesterol may have flown under the radar in American media markets. But the long-term importance of its data to American women can’t be understated.
Simply put, researchers have found a positive link between high cholesterol and reduced breast cancer risk — a link they attribute to the use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
Women in the study diagnosed with high cholesterol were 45 percent less likely to develop breast cancer (and 40 percent less likely to die of breast cancer, if they did develop it) than an equivalent number of women in the study not diagnosed with high cholesterol.
For those not familiar with research data, those numbers are huge. Oftentimes comparing two outcomes results in a difference of only a few percentage points. But 40 to 45 percent? Paul Carter, M.D., lead author of the study, called the incidence of breast cancer in women with high cholesterol “strikingly lower.”
Not only that, but the study itself, based in the United Kingdom, was incredibly comprehensive: More than 1 million women were tracked over 14 years, with data on their health, treatment, and outcomes collated and analyzed on a regular basis.
Not a headline to ignore
Often, “breaking” news on breast cancer research will involve a study of only several hundred women, perhaps conducted over a couple of years. Or even less relevant to readers, news may cover a lab-rat study, one whose hypothesis isn’t yet advanced enough to be tested on humans.
Sometimes, as happened earlier in 2017 with research on the relationship between alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk, the data receives a certain “spin” in the media, making it seem more critical than it actually is. That particular story headlined the fact that women who consumed even one alcoholic drink a day were more likely to develop breast cancer than those who abstained.
But as it turns out, the breast cancer risk for those who enjoy a daily drink (versus those who don’t) is raised by only about .5 percent over the course of a lifetime. I’m betting that most of us, if we take the time to look beyond the headline hype, would decide half a percentage point is no reason to panic and abandon our wine with dinner.
This ESC study, though, is unequivocal: Women with high cholesterol are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with and/or die from breast cancer. What remains to be seen is whether the link is actually between high cholesterol and cancer, or between the drugs used to treat high cholesterol and cancer.
In an ESC press release, the study’s lead author, Dr. Carter, noted that “The results of this study provide the strongest justification to date for a clinical trial evaluating the protective effect of statins in patients with breast cancer, and this is what we intend to do.”
What this means for you
Pending results of further research, what does this information mean to you?
If you suffer from high cholesterol and are taking statin drugs to control it, understand that there’s a good possibility those drugs are also providing you with a certain level of protection against breast cancer. That doesn’t mean you should abandon any cancer-reducing actions you’re already taking, e.g., keeping your weight in check and exercising regularly. But it’s a good feeling to know that those statins may be protecting you not just form heart disease, but from cancer as well.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.