Excess Body Hair, Apple-Shape In Women May Indicate Increased Risk of Breast Cancer

By Lois Baker

Release Date: June 25, 1998 This content is archived.


CHICAGO -- Women who display certain physical characteristics, such as abundant body hair, excessively oily skin and an apple-shaped physique, may have a greater risk of developing breast cancer than other women, researchers at the University at Buffalo have found.

Results of the research were presented here today (June 25, 1998) by Paula Muti, M.D., UB assistant professor of social and preventive medicine, at the annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic Research.

The finding comes from an analysis of women who took part in a study in Northern Italy called ORDET -- HORrmone and Diet ETiology of Breast Cancer.

Muti said blood levels of male sexual hormones, called androgens, produced in women in small amounts by the ovaries and the adrenal glands, have been positively associated with the risk of developing breast cancer in several prospective studies. The most active androgen is testosterone.

The current study sought to determine if external signs of high androgen levels in women could be associated with breast-cancer risk. A positive finding would mean that these traits could be used as a screening tool.

"If these characteristics are linked to an increased risk, women with these traits could be referred for closer screening, or could receive treatment to lower the androgen level," she said. "There are hormone-lowering drugs available, and there are also indications that a diet high in vegetables, fruits and fiber can lower testosterone levels."

Muti followed a group of pre-and-postmenopausal women in the Italian study for three years. At the beginning of the study, the women were assigned a score based on an assessment of the amount of body hair.

Researchers also assessed sebum production -- the output of the skin's oil-and-wax-producing sebaceous glands -- and body-fat distribution, based on the ratio of waist-to-hip measurements.

At the end of three years, 36 premenopausal and 26 postmenopausal women had developed breast cancer. The remaining participants --- 136 premenopausal and 99 postmenopausal women -- served as controls.

• Postmenopausal women with excess body hair had a 33 percent increase in risk of developing breast cancer versus their counterparts with no excess body hair. There was no relationship between body hair and breast-cancer risk in premenopausal women.

• Excess sebum production was a significant risk factor for premenopausal women, but not postmenopausal women. Premenopausal women with the highest levels of sebum production were at 2 1/2 times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to those at the lowest level.

• Premenopausal women with the stereotypical "apple" shape, in which the waist is bigger than the hips, had a 2 1/2 times greater risk of developing breast cancer than their counterparts with "pear" shapes, in which the hips are bigger than the waist. No significant relationship was found between waist-to-hip ratio and breast-cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

Muti said the results provide more evidence that androgens play a role in the development of breast cancer, and show that outward signs of high androgen levels could be a useful screening tool for the disease.

Martin Stanulla, M.D., a visiting researcher from the Medical School of Hannover, Germany, also participated in the study.