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Dr. Patricia Limpert, St. Luke's Hospital

Nicotine increases breast cancer risk

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, 22.8 percent of Missouri women and 17.5 percent of Illinois women are smokers, which is higher than the national average of 16.2 percent. And while about 60 percent of those women have attempted to quit at one time or another, they have yet to kick the habit. There are many reasons to stop smoking, but a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute may give women another reason not to light up.

Researchers have suspected for a long time that smoking increases breast cancer risk, but that risk is typically associated with other carcinogens in cigarettes, rather than nicotine. However, this study took a closer look at nicotine specifically, and it found a clear association with breast cancer risk.

The study examined human breast cancer tumors and found the cells had large numbers of receptors which nicotine was able to attach to when compared with normal cells. They also found that when normal cells were treated with nicotine, it promoted the development of cancer characteristics.

Interestingly, it also found that women who smoke and use hormone replacement therapy containing estrogen and progestins have twice the risk of developing breast cancer compared to non-smoking women on hormone replacement therapy.

Even if women do not smoke, they still could be putting themselves and their babies at risk. Studies have found women who are exposed to cigarette smoke have nicotine traces in their breast milk. Avoidance of secondhand smoke becomes that much more important for expectant mothers who live or associate with someone who smokes.

These findings only add to other known risks for women who smoke. Those include increased risk of lung cancer, oral cancers, cervical and vulvar cancers, blood clots, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, osteoporosis and fractures of the hip and spine, infertility, abnormal menstruation, early onset of menopause and respiratory diseases including asthma and emphysema.

Those who quit smoking experience immediate and long-term benefits including improved circulation, lowered blood pressure and a lower risk of developing cancer as each year passes. For more information on the risks of smoking or to find resources on how to quit, visit smokefree.gov.

Dr. Patricia Limpert is a breast surgeon at the Breast Care Center at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6788 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 7, 2010.