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People who have migraine may also have a higher breast cancer risk. Image credit: Sergey Filimonov/Getty Images.
  • About 14-15% of the global population experience a migraine.
  • Past research shows that people who experience migraine attacks are at an increased risk for other diseases, including breast cancer.
  • Researchers from the Cancer Center at West China Hospital of Sichuan University have identified a possible genetic link between migraine and breast cancer.

Researchers estimate that between 14-15% of the world’s population experience migraine — a neurological disorder that causes severe headaches and other symptoms that can impact a person’s daily life.

Previous studies have linked migraine attacks to an increased risk for other conditions, including stroke, high blood pressure, epilepsy, tinnitus, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Additionally, past research found people who experience migraine headaches may also have a heightened chance of certain cancers, including breast cancer.

Now, researchers from the Cancer Center at West China Hospital of Sichuan University in China are adding to this body of knowledge with a new study that has identified a possible genetic link between migraine and breast cancer.

This study was recently published in the journal BMC Cancer.

Migraine attacks are characterized by intense headaches that can cause throbbing or pulsation, usually in one particular area or side of the head. An attack can last from anywhere between a few hours to a few days.

Because of its intensity, a migraine-related headache is typically also accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

A migraine atack comes about in stages, each with its own set of symptoms. Before a migraine attack, a person may experience mood changes, dizziness, thirst, and/or light and sound sensitivity.

About 25% of people with migraine will experience an aura stage causing disturbances affecting their ability to see, touch, and speak.

The headache stage of a migraine attack is identified by pain on one or both sides of the head. This stage can last for several hours up to a few days.

The postdrome stage occurs at the end of the headache stage, with symptoms including tiredness, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, body aches, and depression.

As migraine can damage the sensory nervous system, past studies show it can potentially lead to a sensory processing disorder.

Another study found that migraine headaches may damage the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes like breathing and heartbeat.

And because of the severity and duration of a migraine, they can have a profound negative impact on a person’s everyday life.

Why might there be a link between migraine and breast cancer? Both migraine and breast cancer are associated with changes in estrogen levels. High estrogen levels can increase a person’s breast cancer risk.

Moreover, the severity and frequency of migraine attacks in women can be affected by changing estrogen levels during a their menstrual cycle, menopausal stage, or pregnancy.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of studies looking at the potential link between migraine and breast cancer. However, the results have been mixed.

A study published in April 2023 found that women who had migraine had a higher risk of developing certain subtypes of breast cancer and also showed an overall earlier onset of breast cancer.

A study published in December 2018 found women who had four or more medical visits for migraine each year had a significantly greater risk of breast cancer.

Conversely, a meta-analysis study published in February 2022 found a statistically significantly inverse relationship between migraine and total risk of breast cancer.

And a study published in April 2023 found that people with migraine had a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer, especially hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

For the new study, researchers gathered data from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on both people with migraine and those with breast cancer.

The migraine genetic data was taken from a combined five studies of more than 102,000 people with migraine and over 771,000 controls.

The breast cancer genetic data was derived from the Breast Cancer Association Consortium (BCAC) and included about 250,000 different cases. All data was taken from study participants of European descent.

With data in hand, scientists used Mendelian randomization analysis to search for a causal relationship between migraine and breast cancer.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers reported that women with any type of migraine have an increased risk of developing overall breast cancer and estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer.

They also discovered that women who experienced migraine headaches without aura had an increased risk of ER-negative breast cancer, and was suggestively associated with a heightened chance for overall breast cancer.

After reviewing this study, Dr. Parvin Peddi, a board-certified medical oncologist and director of Breast Medical Oncology for the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Associate Professor of Medical Oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA, not involved in this research, explained to Medical News Today that this is a retrospective associative study and its conclusion is very speculative.

“With such a non-specific and common issue as migraine, it is very hard to make [a] correlation to breast cancer,” she told us. “No link would be expected between the two. The research needs to be replicated in other countries and other populations before more conclusions can be drawn.”

MNT also spoke with Dr. Louise Morrell, medical director with Lynn Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida, at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, about this study.

“The new findings in this study use [a] very large database looking for any type of genetic variation that could account for breast cancer and migraines,” she explained.

However, she cautioned:

“Association does not equal cause, and the degree of increased risk will involve multiple factors. For example, on a population basis, you might find one woman has an increase in risk from 10% to 11%, but it won’t change what we will do to screen the patient. Gene mutations such as BRCA can increase breast cancer risk from 10% lifetime to 80% lifetime. This does change the management and outcome.”

“So for me, the study is intriguing and will open the door to future studies and possibly understanding the various contributors to the cause of breast cancer,” Dr. Morrell added. “There are multiple possible hypotheses on this, but that would be the reason to pursue future research.”