Breast cancer mortality risk associated with eating smoked or grilled meats

February 12, 2017

High intake of grilled, barbecued and smoked meat by women who survive breast cancer may increase their risk of mortality. That finding is the result of a study led by researchers in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and published online Jan. 5 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Processed meats and meats cooked at high temperatures, known to be a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other carcinogenic chemicals, have been associated with breast cancer incidence. This study sought to determine whether intake of these foods also is related to survival after breast cancer.

Dr. Humberto Parada

Dr. Humberto Parada

Dr. Marilie Gammon

Dr. Marilie Gammon

First author of the study is Humberto Parada Jr., PhD, postdoctoral research associate in epidemiology at the Gillings School and research associate at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Marilie D. Gammon, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School and UNC Lineberger member, is the study’s senior author.

The researchers interviewed a population-based cohort of 1,508 women, included in the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project (LIBCSP), who had been diagnosed with first primary invasive or in situ breast cancer in 1996 and 1997, to assess grilled, barbecued and smoked meat intake. About five years later, 1,033 of these women completed the follow-up questionnaire and were followed for more than 18 years. Using the National Death Index, researchers found 597 deaths in the cohort, of which 237 were breast cancer-related.

When considering post-diagnosis changes in intake, the researchers observed that women who continued to consume large amounts of grilled, barbecued and smoked meat after diagnosis had a 31 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality.

“In previous work, we observed increases linked to developing breast cancer among women with high consumption of grilled, barbecued and smoked meats,” said Parada. “However, ours is the first study to consider whether intake of these foods, which are known to be sources of PAHs, also influence survival following breast cancer. We found that intake of grilled and smoked meats may be a possible prognostic factor. This hypothesis should be examined by others.”

“Grilled, smoked and barbecued meats were the most common sources of PAH exposure reported by nonsmokers in our population-based sample of Long Island women,” said Gammon, who is principal investigator for the LIBCSP. “Thus, whether this PAH source is associated with the development of breast cancer – or with mortality after breast cancer – is potentially an important public health concern. Additional research is needed to confirm our findings.”

Other Gillings School co-authors are Lawrence S. Engel, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology, and Kathleen Dorsey, PhD, research assistant professor of cancer epidemiology.

Additional co-authors include Susan E. Steck, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina; Patrick T. Bradshaw, PhD, Gillings School alumnus and assistant professor of epidemiology at University of California-Berkeley’s School of Public Health; Susan L. Teitelbaum, PhD, research professor of environmental medicine and public health, at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt.  Sinai; Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center; and Regina M. Santella, PhD, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Grant support for the research was provided by The National Cancer Institute and/or the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or