To Your Health

Does an abortion increase the risk of breast cancer?

Q. Does an abortion increase the risk of breast cancer? First I heard that it does, then later I heard that it doesn't. Which is right?

A. Only one aspect of the link between induced abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer appears to be accepted by both sides of this bitter argument, which is that a full-term pregnancy before age 30 lowers a woman's future risk of breast cancer, and that aborting the pregnancy nullifies this protective effect. The political and social storm surrounding abortion means that until there is consensus on its morality, research concerning its effects will be subject to substantial controversy.

Since 1957, there have been more than 20 articles published in the peer-reviewed literature on the subject of abortion and breast cancer risk. Whatever the conclusions drawn from the results, the opposing side will dispute them and seek out flaws in the design of the research. The adage "statistics don't lie, but statisticians do" certainly applies here. The notion that scientists do not allow emotion to influence their interpretation of research is naive.

Both sides of the debate rely heavily on statistics to prove their point. Early studies determined that induced abortion increased the risk of breast cancer by as much as 50%. Critics pointed out that a statistical error known as "recall bias" invalidated the results, because the researchers depended on the women involved in the study to volunteer whether or not they had ever had an abortion. Newer research indicates that induced abortion creates no increased risk of breast cancer, but their detractors maintain that the design of the research did not allow sufficient time for cancer to develop. Each side brought up many other grievances about the conduct of the other side's research. The North Dakota Supreme Court has recently (2003) ruled that abortion clinics are not required to state that induced abortion carries an increased risk of breast cancer.

Since the quarrel is nowhere near to being settled, it seems prudent that any woman contemplating an abortion should be made aware that the possibility of an increased risk of breast cancer from an abortion is being debated. She and her family can then investigate the details and come to their own conclusion.

In addition, women who have had an abortion as well as those considering one should know that there are lifestyle changes that reduce the risk of breast cancer, regardless of a history of abortion. For instance, the type and amount of fat in the diet influences the risk of breast cancer, and emphasis on omega-3 fats from fish seems to be most beneficial. In general, a high fiber diet based on vegetables and fruits, especially colorful vegetables and fruits, with moderate intake of nuts and seeds, is your best bet. You need not completely eliminate your "comfort foods" but the refined "convenience foods" can be minimized. Alcohol intake should not exceed two servings per day. Moderate exercise is valuable and may encourage you to keep up your fluid intake. It also helps to keep a positive mental attitude about life and find things to laugh about each day.

Abortion is a serious step, one not to be taken without due consideration of all the ramifications.

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