Early menarche may influence aggressive breast cancer in African-American women

June 18, 2015

Early age at menarche, or first menstrual cycle, could play a role in the disproportionate incidence of estrogen receptor (ER)-negative breast cancers diagnosed among African-American women, according to a study published online June 17 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Andy Olshan

Dr. Andy Olshan

The study is a result of a multicenter collaborative research effort that formed the African-American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk Consortium (AMBER). Andrew Olshan, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, is a consortium member. Olshan also is associate director for population science at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

AMBER researchers investigated the epidemiologic and genetic causes for more aggressive breast cancer in African-American women. They combined four epidemiologic studies with large numbers of African-American participants — the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), the Multi-ethnic Cohort Study (MEC), the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS) and the Women’s Circle of Health Study (WCHS).

The goal was to examine whether relationships between age at menarche and breast cancer are the same for tumors that are ER-positive or ER-negative, particularly among African-American women. ER-negative breast cancer is generally more aggressive and known to be associated with a poorer prognosis than ER-positive disease.

Analysis of data from 4,426 African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 17,000 women without the disease showed that the pathways to ER-negative and ER-positive breast cancer appear to be different.

“It is known that exposures such as ionizing radiation have a great impact on the risk of women who are later diagnosed with breast cancer if the exposure occurs during puberty, a time when breast cells appear to be extremely sensitive,” said Christine Ambrosone, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and lead author of the study.

“Indications are that the resulting cancers tend to be ER-negative,” Ambrosone said. “African-American girls tend to have earlier menarche than European-Americans, and that age is getting younger over time. It is possible that early age at menarche could play a role in the disproportionate number of ER-negative breast cancers diagnosed in African-American women.”

Reduced risk of ER-positive breast cancer with later age at menarche was primarily observed among women who  previously had given birth, with the greatest increased risk for those with longer spans between menarche and childbirth. However, for ER-negative breast cancer, childbirth status had no impact on the protective effects of later age at menarche.

The researchers conclude that age at menarche may be critical even in the development of ER-negative breast cancer, regardless of having children, and that the origins of ER-negative vs. ER-positive breast cancer at the cellular and molecular level may be different.

“These analyses are from the largest study of breast cancer in African-American women, to date,” said Julie Palmer, ScD, professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center and study co-author. “The AMBER consortium used rich epidemiological data and information about breast cancer subgroups, and included women from across the United States. We believe the findings from the study are generalizable to most African-American women.”

Olshan noted that the researchers’ findings added further evidence to the growing knowledge that there are distinct etiologic pathways for ER-negative and ER-positive breast cancer. “The study underscores that these differences likely begin at a very early age,” he said.

The work was supported by National Cancer Institute (NCI) grants and the University Cancer Research Fund of North Carolina.


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

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