The Connection Between Inflammation and Breast Cancer

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
July 5, 2017
breast cancer awareness pink ribbon

According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, by the end of 2015, there will be 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women and 2,350 new cases of invasive breast cancer among men.  Although breast cancer is not considered preventable, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), you can reduce your risk by:

  • Limiting alcohol intake Drinking alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer. The ACS reports that women who drink 1 alcoholic beverage a day slightly increase their risk; whereas, women consuming between 2 and 5 drinks daily have 1½ times greater risk compared to women who do not drink.
  • Controlling weight – Being overweight after menopause may raise the risk of breast cancer. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries, liver, adrenal glands and fat tissue. While estrogen has a handful of functions beyond maintaining the female reproductive system, experts believe if estrogen is circulating in a woman’s body after menopause, it can raise the risk of breast cancer. And having a higher percentage of body fat can extend the exposure to estrogen.
  • Engaging in physical activity – Exercising regularly seems to lower the risk of breast cancer. The ACS suggests that walking briskly for a couple of hours each week can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 18 percent. Further, a new study published in JAMA Oncology suggested that working out for 5 hours per week lowered the risk even further, as the additional exercise burned more fat. 
  • Avoiding tobacco smoke – Smoking on a long-term basis appears to raise the risk of breast cancer. Currently, studies go back and forth regarding exposure to second-hand smoke and breast cancer risk.

Accordingly, a growing number of studies support that chronic inflammation has ties to breast cancer and that working with your doctor to help prevent and control chronic inflammation may help lower your risk.


Inflammation is an immune system response to an irritant. As soon as you prick your finger, come in contact with an allergen or catch a cold, your immune system activates, sending an army of white blood cells to fight off “foreign invaders” like bacteria and viruses. Even injuries such as a sprained ankle, tennis elbow and tendonitis cause inflammation, as white blood cells flood injured areas to remove bacteria and dead cellular debris. Sometimes, inflammation is noticeable (redness and swelling that appear in an injured area); this is referred to as acute inflammation. Chronic inflammation, however, occurs on a deeper, more internal level and is usually invisible. This can mask underlying, potentially dangerous health issues like heart disease, autoimmune disorders (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome) or cancer that may be brewing.

Chronic Inflammation and Cancer

For decades, cancer experts suspected a link between chronic inflammation and cancer but were not able to confirm it until a few years ago. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health Sciences reported that inflammation activates MUC1, a protein molecule that triggers tumor progression. Additionally, investigators at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center found inflammation causes a rise in microR-155, a protein-lowering molecule that helps repair DNA. This can increase spontaneous gene mutations, raising the risk of cancer. Further, scientists at Florida Atlantic University observed that inflammation elevates CHI3L1, a cancer biomarker that spurs the growth of cancer cells.  

Chronic Inflammation and Breast Cancer

Researchers have also been able to tie inflammation specifically to breast cancer development, metastasis (spreading), recurrence and lower survival rates.

A manuscript published in the American Society of Clinical Oncology Educational Book suggested that obesity creates multiple pathways of chronic inflammation throughout the body and in the breasts. Excess body weight enlarges fat cells, spurring inflammation. Obesity also instigates insulin resistance, a condition in which cells do not respond properly to insulin, causing the body to produce more insulin in order to control blood sugar levels. However, insulin is an inflammatory agent that can result in abdominal weight gain, creating a snowball effect of inflammation and enlarged fat cells. And since fat cells produce estrogen, obesity and insulin resistance can result in an overproduction of estrogen, raising the risk of breast cancer.       

Biomedical engineers from Cornell University believe certain protein molecules (i.e., cytokines) and inflammation can cause breast cancer to metastasize. Cytokines send signals to cells, affecting cellular communication and behavior. According to engineers, the pro-inflammatory cytokines, IL-6 and TNF-alpha, activate a mechanism that stimulates breast cancer cells to move through blood vessels and adhere to their surfaces, eventually penetrating the blood vessels and contributing to metastasis.

Lastly, results from a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that measuring the levels of the proteins serum amyloid A (SAA) and C-reactive protein (CRP) can help gauge low-grade chronic inflammation and predict breast cancer recurrence and survival. SAA and CRP rise in response to a tissue injury or other cause of inflammation and when elevated, raise the risk of breast cancer recurrence and lower overall survival rates.
Controlling Chronic Inflammation

According to WebMD, what you eat can help you prevent and/or control chronic inflammation. For instance, adding these foods to your diet can aid in offsetting the damage caused by tobacco smoke, environmental pollution and UV rays.

  • Various fruits and vegetables (berries, dark green leafy vegetables, oranges and tomatoes)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (olive oil, nuts/seeds and fish)
  • Whole grains (amaranth, barley, buckwheat and brown rice)
  • Spices (ginger, turmeric and cinnamon)

Limit your intake of these foods, as they seem to have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body.

  • Saturated fats  (red meat, poultry with skin and full-fat dairy products) 
  • Trans fats (baked goods, many snack foods including cereal/granola/energy bars and some brands of instant oatmeal)
  • Refined and processed foods (white flour products, high-sugar foods and gluten products)
  • Alcohol
  • Omega-6 fatty acids (many vegetable oils, condiments, like salad dressings, mayonnaise and mustard, and roasted nuts)

According to Helayne Waldman from GreenMedInfo, other steps you can take that may help keep inflammation to a minimum include:

  • Managing blood sugar levels, as insulin, a hormone that is triggered to help control blood sugar, causes inflammation in the body.
  • Getting between 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, as a lack of sleep triggers the hormone cortisol, which also raises insulin.
  • Controlling stress because part of the body’s response to stress is the release of cortisol.

Continue reading for more tips that can help you control chronic inflammation

No matter your gender, you can discuss your risk of breast cancer with your MDVIP-affiliated physician and work with him/her to help you prevent or control chronic inflammation. Your physician can also explain how to perform monthly breast self-examinations and help you stay current with other forms of early detection such as clinical examinations and mammograms. If you don’t have an MDVIP-affiliated doctor, click here to learn more about the benefits of the MDVIP personalized care approach and find a doctor near you.

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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