Human papillomavirus (HPV) refers to a group of related viruses that may cause warts on the skin or mucous membranes. HPV may also cause cervical cancer and other cancers, but the evidence linking HPV to breast cancer is currently unclear.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it can also spread through close personal contact with someone with the virus.

Breast cancer is a form of cancer that starts in breast tissue. There are several types of breast cancer, including ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and invasive carcinoma.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HPV can lead to cervical cancer, but evidence that it can lead to breast cancer is controversial.

In this article, we examine the link between HPV and breast cancer. We look at whether HPV or the HPV vaccine can cause breast cancer and discuss the risk factors for HPV and breast cancer.

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The evidence linking HPV and breast cancer is growing, but scientists do not entirely accept or understand the connection.

The WHO notes that there are more than 100 different subtypes of HPV. Of those, 14 subtypes could potentially be problematic. Studies looking at the link between HPV and breast cancer often focus on subtype 16 or 18.

In a 2019 study, researchers examined 72 females living with breast cancer and found that 48.6% of them had HPV DNA in their breast cancer tissue. However, they also noted that the role of HPV in cancer development is still questionable and unclear.

The findings were consistent with those from a 2017 study that found a high prevalence of HPV DNA in breast cancer cells. The researchers also highlighted the need for additional studies to confirm the relationship between breast cancer and HPV.

Both studies documented finding additional subtypes of HPV in breast cancer cells. The authors of the 2017 study recommend that the HPV vaccine include additional subtypes beyond 16 and 18 due to the potential benefit of preventing breast cancer.

Finally, in a 2020 study, researchers also observed a high prevalence of HPV in breast cancer cells. The authors suggest that HPV is an important factor in the development of certain types of breast cancer but note the need for further research to understand the role that the virus plays.

Can the HPV vaccine cause cancer?

The HPV vaccine does not cause breast cancer or any other type of cancer. However, it is also not a vaccine to prevent breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that both males and females get the HPV vaccine.

For females, the vaccine can help prevent HPV-related cancers, including cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancer. The vaccine can also help prevent HPV-related penile cancer in males, and anal and throat cancers associated with the virus in all people.

There are currently 14 known subtypes of HPV linked to various cancers in people, including:

  • vaginal
  • anal
  • vulvar
  • throat
  • cervical

A person can reduce their risk of developing these cancers by getting the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is available for everyone up to the age of 26 years. However, for maximum benefit, the ACS recommends that all children aged 9–12 years get two vaccine doses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that there are two types of risk factors for breast cancer: those that a person can change and those they cannot.

Modifiable risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • hormone therapy and hormonal birth control
  • having excess body weight
  • not getting enough exercise
  • drinking alcohol
  • reproductive history, including having a first baby after the age of 30 years and not breastfeeding

The risk factors for breast cancer that a person cannot change may include:

  • age
  • reproductive history, such as starting menstruation before the age of 12 years or entering menopause after the age of 55 years
  • genetic mutations
  • family history
  • dense breast tissue
  • previous radiation therapy
  • personal history of breast cancer

Risk factors for contact with HPV include:

  • new sexual partners
  • increased number of sexual partners in a person’s lifetime
  • having sexual partners who also have other sexual partners

However, as the CDC notes, HPV is so common that almost everyone will come into contact with it at some point. For most, it will cause no symptoms and go away on its own. However, for some, it can linger and potentially cause certain cancers.

A person can take steps to reduce the likelihood of contracting a severe subtype of HPV.

Some basic measures to prevent HPV include:

  • using a barrier method, such as a condom, during sex
  • avoiding genital contact with others
  • getting HPV tests regularly
  • getting the HPV shot

However, it is important to note that despite taking steps to reduce the risk, a person may still contract HPV.

A person can also take steps to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. Some potential methods include:

  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • staying physically active
  • avoiding hormonal therapy, if possible
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • considering breastfeeding their baby, if possible

For individuals at increased risk, additional steps can include:

  • genetic counseling
  • taking medications designed to help prevent breast cancer
  • preventive surgery
  • close observation

HPV may have links to breast cancer, but more evidence is necessary for researchers to understand the connection entirely. Studies have shown the presence of HPV in breast cancer cells, but the role that the virus plays in breast cancer is still not known.

HPV can cause other cancers, including cervical or vaginal cancer. A person can take steps to prevent HPV through getting the vaccination and practicing safe sex.