FEBRUARY 01, 2008

Sunlight Might Lower Breast Cancer Risk

Although women with light skin pigmentation tend to avoid the sun for fear of burns and potential skin cancer, a recent study has found that exposure to sunlight may actually reduce the risk of advanced breast cancer in these women.

Researchers at the Northern California Cancer Center in Fremont studied 1788 women with breast cancer and 2129 women without the disease who all lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1995 to 2003. High levels of sun exposure were associated with a 47% reduction in the risk of advanced breast cancer in light-skinned women. This reduction was not seen in medium- or dark-skinned women, however, and was only seen in the advanced version of breast cancer, not in localized cancers.

"While the public needs to be advised to avoid excessive sun exposure, and sunburns in particular, because of the known risk of skin cancer and melanoma, never getting any sun exposure leads to vitamin D deficiency," said lead author Esther M. John, MD. Evidence points to the ability of vitamin D to help decrease the risk of certain cancers, such as breast, prostate, and colon. The findings were published in the October 18, 2007, issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

African American Women Get Suboptimal Cancer Treatment

Black women with breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes are less likely to undergo supplemental but potentially life-saving therapies, such as tamoxifen and chemotherapy, than white women with the same level of disease state.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor reviewed data on 630 women diagnosed with breast cancer at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit between 1990 and 1996. They accounted for such variables as concurrent illnesses and socioeconomic and health insurance status. In the 242 white women studied, 88 had cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes, compared with 158 of the 388 black women.

The investigators found that black women were less likely to have supplemental therapy for their advanced cancers and white women were 5 times more likely to take tamoxifen and >3 times as likely to take chemotherapy, compared with their black counterparts. Among women with localstage disease not reaching the lymph nodes, rates of supplemental therapy were similar between races. The findings were published in the November 15, 2007, issue of Cancer.

?Smoking Boom? Catching up with Women

A report from the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver states that women who took part in the "smoking boom" of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s are beginning to feel the devastating effects of years of smoking, even after they have quit for many years. The death rate in women from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has nearly tripled from 1980 to 2000, and since 2000, more women than men have died or been admitted to the hospital per year because of COPD. Barry J. Make, MD, a lung specialist at the center, noted that "women started smoking in what I call the ?Virginia Slims era,' when [the cigarette company] started sponsoring sporting events. It's now just catching up to them."

About 85% of all cases of COPD are caused by smoking, and the symptoms usually appear after age 40 in people who have smoked at least a pack a day for 10 years or more. Some studies suggest that women's lungs might be more sensitive to smoke than men's. Experts at the center warn that part of the problem is the common misdiagnosis, mistreatment, or undertreatment of COPD in women, which is often mistaken for asthma.

Iron Could Help Women?s Coughs

A study from the University of Turin in Italy showed that otherwise healthy, nonsmoking women who experience persistent cough may have an iron deficiency. Testing also showed that women are more likely than men to have unexplained chronic cough.

The researchers studied 16 women with chronic cough who were found to have normal lung function, with no signs of asthma or other respiratory disease and no evidence of acid stomach reflux that could explain their coughing, and found that all had iron deficiencies. The women had signs of swelling in the back of the mouth and red, inflamed mucous membranes. Their vocal cords were also very sensitive, making them cough and choke easily, such as after vigorous laughing.

The scientists observed that cough and signs of pharyngolaryngitis were improved or resolved after iron supplementation in 16 healthy nonsmoking women who had idiopathic cough and iron deficiency or mild anemia. Researchers speculate that because iron helps regulate the production of proteins in the immune system that control inflammation, an iron deficiency might make the upper airway more prone to inflammation, leading to chronic cough. The study was presented at the November scientific meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians.

F A S T   F A C T : By the time a woman reaches the age of 85, her risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 7.