Cancer has become such an epidemic that almost every study you read today whether it is related to health, food, sleep, sex, work ethics and other diseases will not be complete until it makes its way back to cancer somehow. You must have noticed for yourself how a newspaper article on, say, the disadvantages of caffeine will go on to discuss cancer at some length. It seems like everything today is connected to cancer. This makes sense if you think about it – after all, your health is influenced by a number of factors from what you eat to how much sleep you get and how stressed out you are. So it comes as no surprise that every medical condition and medical decision you make is also investigated for a possible connection to breast cancer – abortion and miscarriage being two of which are highly debated.
Abortion and miscarriage are both very sensitive issues. The idea that these might link to breast cancer can make things worse. These are all difficult topics to discuss and the goal of this article is not to spread fear or to make you feel guilty or to make you worry for no reason. Rather, the intention is to educate, to explore if there is indeed a connection in the first place and if the factors influencing that connection are strong enough to pose a real risk.
So, is there a link?
The short answer is – it’s debatable. There are many theories but not enough evidence. We’ll take a look at these theories as well as the reasons behind why sufficient supporting evidence is sorely lacking.
Not all women who choose to have an abortion will end up having breast cancer. The same goes for miscarriage. Not all women who have breast cancer have had abortions or miscarriages in the past and the numbers are just not stable enough to render a connection. But with cancer you have to check out every possible link and the relation between the disease and past abortions / miscarriages
So why is there a link, even if it is debated, in the first place? What is it exactly that the fears are based on?
Why would abortion / miscarriage be connected to breast cancer?
It is not the abortion / miscarriage itself which is thought to be a risk but rather the fact that the pregnancy is not going to come to full-term and the repercussions of post-pregnancy body changes like those connected to breastfeeding that may have something to do with an increased cancer risk.
It is a known fact that women who delay their first pregnancies are at higher risk for breast cancer. The risk increases with each passing year that a pregnancy is delayed. If a woman has no children, abortion / miscarriage means that she will be delaying her first full-term pregnancy, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. This putting it off may be increasing her risk of breast cancer, not the abortion / miscarriage itself.
Breastfeeding may reduce breast cancer risk as the changes that breast tissue undergoes to maintain the production of milk produces enzymes which are known to improve immunity to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). The abortion / miscarriage means that the woman in question will not be able to get that added protection from breast cancer which is what puts her at higher risk for the disease.
Finally, there is what is known as the ‘independent link’ because it is a link which is considered independent of the other two theories we just looked at. This one states that a woman who has an abortion / miscarriage is more susceptible to cancer than before she got pregnant. The high levels of estrogen produced by the body during pregnancy cause the breast cells to multiply which is what makes them grow bigger. Firstly, estrogen is considered to be a highly-volatile carcinogen. Secondly, it causes the lobules (more than one lobe) in the breast to multiply. If the pregnancy goes to full-term, the hormones produced towards the pregnancy third trimester as well as the bodily changes post-pregnancy make the lobules cancer-resistant. This means that a full-term pregnancy reduces her chances of breast cancer as she then has more cancer-resistant lobules than she did before she got pregnant. However, the abortion/miscarriage cuts the process short and leaves her with more lobules than she had before she was pregnant. Lobules are where most cancers start so all she is left with then is more places in her breast for the cancer to take hold. Know though that these are all just theories at this point, no matter how plausible. Studies are indeed done all the time but the conclusions received from them are not the type that can stand the rigors of scrutiny required by a good scientific study.
Why is there not more information available?
To get an accurate idea of whether abortion / miscarriage is related to breast cancer, researchers first need to identify women who have had abortions / miscarriages and question them about it for the purposes of data accumulation. They then need to do tests and keep in touch with these women for years after to see if there is any change in their breast cells or if they end up having breast cancer. It’s the first part of this process that is so difficult to do.
Women who have abortions / miscarriage do not like discussing it for obvious reasons. The topic is far too personal and private and most women have unresolved feelings associated with their experience. So finding women who are willing to participate in such a study is very hard. Even if they do participate, there is a chance that they will not answer the questions put to them very accurately because there may be feelings of shame, guilt or deep grief associated with the abortion / miscarriage which do not allow them to be open about it. They may cover up certain points or fail to bring to light others during the data accumulation process. They may also, at some time in the future, choose to drop out of the study to rid them of the painful reminder of the abortion/miscarriage. This is completely understandable and there is nothing that can be done about it. This considerably reduces the number of test subjects in the study and the smaller the numbers the less reliable the data.
A study usually consists of women who have breast cancer as well as those who do not. The women who have breast cancer are very likely to report if they had past abortions as they are desperate to get better and will offer up any and all details of their past lives to help. However, healthy women do not have that motivation and are more likely to skip over their past abortions and even miscarriages at times if they still have very strong feelings associated with it. Some women genuinely forget that they have had abortions as a coping mechanism they resort to when they cannot deal with the grief. All these factors lead to insufficient data. Without enough data, it is impossible to arrive at a surefire conclusion. So all that researchers are left with is a theory based on logical thinking but without enough evidence to back it up.
All this adds up to the fact that there simply is not enough at this point to come to a definite conclusion. The debates for both teams are passionate. You will constantly see some ‘definitive’ new study by a top scientist claiming that there is a relation between breast cancer and abortion / miscarriage only to be faced with another ‘breakthrough’ study the following week by a bunch of researchers at some high-end university or breast cancer research center stating that there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between the two.
What’s more, you can never be sure of the agenda of the source. For example, many anti-abortion groups will obviously say that there is a relation between breast cancer and abortion / miscarriage by exaggerating statistics and even blatantly manufacturing theories that have no basis in truth, using words like ‘devastating effects’ to scare women into not having abortions.
On the other hand, there may be abortion clinics or pharmaceutical companies who make abortion pills and who want to bring in more business so they will obviously say there is no connection. You’d think that science and medicine would be safe from such unethical practices but it’s not an ideal world. Whichever study you are reading, take in the facts with a pinch of salt.
Meanwhile, the best thing to do then is just to avoid having an abortion if possible and taking care to reduce your risk of miscarriage on the off chance that either of these things does somehow relate to a higher risk of breast cancer. Plus, keep in mind that it is not just this one thing that will increase your risk. There are several other risk factors like your predisposition to the disease, whether or not you smoke, your stress levels, your age, your weight and your overall general health which come into play too. So don’t worry that this one thing alone is going to cause breast cancer.