To Your Health

The possible link between antibiotics and breast cancer

Q. I am a little worried now about taking antibiotics since I heard about the link to breast cancer. Am I overreacting? Also, if I don't use antibiotics, what can I use?

A. Almost everyone agrees that antibiotics have provided substantial benefits over the past decades, contributing greatly to improving health, especially of infants and children. Unfortunately, antibiotics have also been overused, with people insisting on taking antibiotics for colds and the flu, which are caused by viruses and cannot be helped by antibiotics. A troubling rise in antibiotic resistance has been one of the consequences.

Breast cancer strikes more than 200,000 women each year in the United States and is the most common cancer in women worldwide. Breast cancer is an enormously complex disease, and its causes are mostly unknown, but a recent study indicates a need to exercise caution in the unrestricted use of antibiotics.

This study, published in February 2004 in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, is a follow-up of a 1999 Finnish study that found similar results. Actually, scientists first proposed that antibiotics might increase the risk for breast cancer in 1981, but that study was not as well designed as the JAMA study. There are still a lot of questions left unanswered. Basically, the JAMA study found that women who took antibiotics for more than 500 days over about 17 years faced double the risk of developing breast cancer compared with women who didn't use any antibiotics.

But there were other differences in the two groups. More women with breast cancer were premenopausal and more had used oral contraceptives. They were also more likely to have started their periods before age 11, had their first baby after age 30 years, and have a close family member with breast cancer. It is entirely possible that the reason for taking antibiotics may be the actual risk factor, rather than the antibiotics themselves. The results of the study do not mean that antibiotics cause breast cancer, only that there is an association between the two.

This study should not deter you from taking antibiotics if your physician thinks it is necessary. However, physicians today are often willing to give the body a chance at defeating a bacterial invader by waiting a few days before starting antibiotics. During that time, you can use some of the many nutrients that have been demonstrated by research on humans to help your body fight the infection. The best documented of these nutrients are vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and N-acetyl cysteine. Others with less supporting evidence include folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, zinc, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, acetyl L-carnitine, grapefruit seed extract, and olive-leaf extract. All of these, and several others, support immune function. Consider using lactobacillus acidophilus, the friendly intestinal bacteria that assist us by making some of the nutrients we need. Also, reducing the intake of sweets gives the immune system a better chance of winning its battle with the intruders.

Until we better understand the association between antibiotics and cancer, you should use antibiotics wisely, weighing the substantial benefits and the potential risks of these and other medicines.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  


antibiotics, breast cancer

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle