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J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012 July 3; 104(13): 1021–1027.
Published online 2012 July 3. doi:  10.1093/jnci/djs255
PMCID: PMC3634553

Fertility Drugs and Young-Onset Breast Cancer: Results From the Two Sister Study

Abstract

Background Fertility drugs stimulate hyperovulation, which may have implications for breast cancer. We examined the association between use of fertility drugs (clomiphene citrate [CC] and follicle-stimulating hormone [FSH]) and subsequent risk of young-onset (<50 years at diagnosis) breast cancer.

Methods We conducted the Two Sister Study, a sister-matched case–control study, by enrolling 1422 women between September 2008 and December 2010, who were younger than age 50 years at diagnosis with breast cancer and were enrolled within 4 years of diagnosis, and 1669 breast cancer–free control sisters from the Sister Study. Participants reported their use of fertility drugs (CC and FSH) and ever-users reported whether a pregnancy had resulted that lasted 10 or more (10+) weeks. Conditional logistic regression was used to estimate confounder-adjusted odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for fertility drug use with or without conception of a 10+ week pregnancy.

Results A total of 288 participants reported having used ovulation-stimulating drugs (193 CC only, 29 FSH only, and 66 both). Overall, women who had used fertility drugs showed a non-statistically significantly decreased
risk of breast cancer, compared with nonusers (OR = 0.82, 95% CI = 0.63 to 1.08). Women who had used fertility drugs but had not conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment showed a statistically significantly
decreased risk of breast cancer compared with nonusers (OR = 0.62, 95% CI = 0.43 to 0.89). Women who had used fertility drugs and conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment showed a statistically significantly increased risk of breast cancer compared with unsuccessfully treated women (OR = 1.82, 95% CI = 1.10 to 3.00), although their risk was not increased compared with women who had not used fertility drugs (OR = 1.13, 95% CI = 0.78
to 1.64).

Conclusions In the absence of a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment, exposure to ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs was associated with reduced risk of young-onset breast cancer. This apparent association was absent in women who conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment, for whom risk was higher than that of unsuccessfully treated women, but similar to that of untreated women.

Hormones play an important role in breast cancer. Well-documented risk factors, such as early menarche, late age at first birth, late menopause, and long-term hormone therapy, are related to the duration of lifetime exposure to estrogen and progesterone (1,2).

Treatment with ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs causes recruitment and maturation of multiple ovarian follicles, temporarily elevating estrogen; in women treated with clomiphene citrate (CC), the peak serum levels of estrogen are two- to threefold higher than normal (average: 200 pg/mL at peak) (3,4), and peak levels are even higher in women who undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, which typically involves the use of follicle-
stimulating hormone (FSH)-containing drugs (5,6). If pregnancy results, the supernumerary ovarian corpora lutea produce both estrogen and progesterone and raise the levels far above normal in the first 9 weeks (7,8). It is estimated that 6% of babies born in the United States in 2005 were conceived with ovulation-stimulating drugs (9).

The widespread use of ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs has raised concern about possible implications for breast cancer. Some, but not all, studies report increased risk following infertility treatment (1031). A recent meta-analysis was inconclusive, citing methodological limitations of previous studies, which included infrequent use of fertility drugs, unspecified treatments, incomplete control for confounding, and small numbers of case subjects (32).

Breast cancers in women younger than age 50 years are rare but can be aggressive and carry a worse prognosis compared with those in older women (33), and distinct risk factors are associated with such young-onset disease. We conducted a sister-controlled study and examined whether use of ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs is associated with risk of breast cancer in women younger than age 50 years. To examine the possible consequences of the high hormonal exposures experienced in early pregnancy by women who conceive with ovarian hyperstimulation, we separated fertility-drug exposures according
to whether or not that treatment had resulted in a pregnancy lasting at least 10 weeks.

Methods

Study Design

The Two Sister Study is a family-based retrospective study of environmental and genetic factors related to young-onset breast cancer, which was developed from the Sister Study (http://www.sisterstudy.org/2Sisters_English/2Sisters.htm). The Sister Study is an ongoing prospective cohort study of more than 50 000 women aged 35–74 years, enrolled between 2004 and 2009, who had a sister diagnosed with breast cancer but had not been diagnosed themselves at the time of enrollment (http://www.sisterstudy.org). This study was undertaken to study environmental and genetic risk factors for breast cancer, using a cohort of women known to be at increased risk. We identified Sister Study participants whose sister had been diagnosed within 4 years and had been younger than age 50 years at diagnosis (case sisters), and asked them to forward to their affected sister our invitation to enroll in the Two Sister Study. Enrollment was accomplished between September 2008 and December 2010.

To allow for treatment time, case sisters were not contacted until at least a year after diagnosis. Each enrolled case sister completed the same two-part computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) on demographics, lifestyle, reproductive factors, health conditions, and medications as their control sister(s) had when they enrolled in the Sister Study. In addition, case sisters completed a CATI on breast cancer diagnosis, tumor characteristics, and treatment,
providing contact information for their medical providers, and authorizing release of cancer-related medical records.

Of the 3283 families identified as potentially eligible (ie, the Sister Study participant had reported she had a sister diagnosed with breast cancer at age younger than 50 years and had been diagnosed within 4 years), 403 Sister Study participants did not respond. Of the remaining 2880 participants, 91 case sisters were deceased, and 77 were determined to be ineligible (mostly because the control sister had misreported the case sister’s age at diagnosis or the 4-year limit had been exceeded by the time we made contact). Of the remaining 2712 families, 2492 Sister Study participants agreed to send their sister our letter of invitation between 2008 and 2010. Of those, 411 young-onset case sisters did not respond, 63 declined to participate, and the remaining 2018 expressed interest. However, 264 of those were then found to be ineligible (mostly because the time since diagnosis was >4 years). Of the remainder, 1422 of 1754 (81.1%) case sisters who completed all telephone interviews were included along with their 1669 control sisters, after excluding 20 control sisters who had been more than 7 years younger than their case sister’s age at diagnosis when they completed their interviews, and for whom there was at least one alternate control sister available.

Medical records of cancer diagnosis and treatment were obtained for 1245 of 1422 (88%) case sisters. Agreement between CATI self-report and medical records was excellent. The positive predictive value of self-report was 99.5% for invasive cancer, 98.8% for estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) cancer, 98.9% for progesterone receptor–positive (PR+) cancer, and 98.8% for ductal carcinoma. Therefore, for subset analyses restricted to families with specific tumor characteristics, self-report was substituted when medical records were unavailable.

Both the Sister Study and the Two Sister Study were approved by the institutional review boards of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, and the Copernicus Group. Written informed consent was provided by all but 119 case sisters who completed just the telephone interview and provided verbal consent.

Exposure Assessment

Before the interview, participants were mailed memory aids including visual cue cards, lists of relevant medications, and a chronological life calendar to record landmark events, such as births or major surgeries. Women were asked in the CATI whether they had ever sought medical help to become pregnant. Women who reported ever taking fertility medications provided the medication names, when they first took them, the number of menstrual cycles of use, and whether any
treatment had resulted in a pregnancy lasting 10 or more (10+) weeks.

Medications were coded using the Slone Drug Dictionary (34), with linking to active ingredients and American Hospital Formulary Service (AHFS) drug classes using Pharmacologic–Therapeutic Classification codes from AHFS. We considered two major types of ovulation-inducing fertility drugs: CC and gonadotropins (eg, FSH), identified by class codes 68:16:12:00 and 68:18:02:00, respectively (Supplementary Table 1, available online). A multicomponent fertility drug, Pergonal, which lacks a class code and is often used in IVF treatment protocols, was included as “FSH” because it contains FSH.

Statistical Analysis

In this sister-matched case–control study, case sisters were younger than age 50 years at diagnosis, whereas the matched control sisters may have been older when they enrolled in the Sister Study. To ensure comparable opportunity for exposure in within-sibship comparisons, we assessed time-varying variables with reference to an “index age,” which was defined for each set of sisters as the smallest of the numbers reported for the age of the case sister at diagnosis and the age(s) of her control sister(s) at their completion of the CATIs. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were estimated using conditional logistic regression to account for sibling matching.

Fertility-drug use was categorized as nonuser, CC only, FSH only, or both CC and FSH. Because biological consequences
of exposure may differ for users of ovulation-stimulating drugs who do vs who do not conceive a 10+ week pregnancy with treatment, we conceptualized seven exposure categories (nonuser, CC only [conceived vs did not conceive with treatment], FSH only [conceived vs did not conceive with treatment], and both CC and FSH [conceived vs did not conceive with treatment]) based on full cross-classification. We compared the model that included all seven unordered categories (using six dummy variables) with a reduced model that included the four categories for ovulation-stimulating drugs together with a dummy variable for occurrence of a resulting stimulated pregnancy (three dummy variables for drugs and one for stimulated pregnancy). The latter model fit as well and was adopted as a joint exposure model (Model I). We further collapsed the four drug-exposure categories to aggregate into just two (users vs nonusers) and this aggregation caused very little loss of fit. The final parsimonious model thus included just users vs nonusers of ovulation-stimulating drugs (Model II).

The exposure parsed in this way has some unusual features: a stimulated pregnancy by definition can only happen in women with exposure to ovulation-stimulating drugs; consequently, the relative risk for women with a stimulated pregnancy compared with women without fertility-drug exposure is estimated as the exponentiated sum of the coefficient for drug use plus the coefficient for stimulated pregnancy (ie, as the product of the two odds ratios, one for her drug exposure and one for her pregnancy, given drug exposure). In addition, the exponentiated coefficient for stimulated pregnancy is interpretable as estimating the odds ratio for the
pregnancy exposure relative to women with exposure to fertility drugs who did not conceive.

In further exploratory analyses, subcategories were considered based on age at first use (<35 vs ≥35 years), and whether the first treatment came before vs after the first birth. Stimulated pregnancies were also classified according to whether a stimulated pregnancy was their first birth.

We used directed acyclic graphs (35) to identify potential confounders. The following were considered: relative birth order among participating sisters, education, household income per person, age at menarche (<12, 12–13, ≥14 years), age at first birth (<25, 25–29, 30–34, ≥35 years, or nulliparous), parity (0, 1, 2, ≥3 children), infertility (had ever been at risk of pregnancy for 12 months without conceiving or had ever sought help to become pregnant), menopausal status (premenopause, postmenopause, and premenopausal hysterectomy with retained ovarian tissue) at index age, duration of breast-feeding (treated as a continuous variable), body mass index (BMI) at ages 30–39 years (<18.5, 18.5–24.9, 25.0–29.9, ≥30.0 kg/m2), hormonal birth control history (nonuser, user for <10 years, user for ≥10 years, and user with unknown duration), smoking (nonsmoker, <1, 1–9.9, ≥10 pack-years) and average alcohol consumption during the previous 10 years (nondrinker, <13, 13–<48, 48–<180, ≥180 drinks/year). Age at first birth (<25, 25–<30, 30–<35, ≥35 years), parity (0, 1, 2, ≥3 children), and duration of breastfeeding were cumulated to the exact index age (in days). Other time-varying variables were cumulated up through index age minus one (in years). Age at first birth and menopausal status at index age were included in all models. We adjusted for relative birth order among participating sisters to account for design-induced differences between case sisters and control sisters. Other potential confounders (including age at menarche, self-reported BMI at ages 30–39 years, and infertility) had negligible impact on the estimates and were not included in the final models. Subset analyses were also performed according to tumor characteristics (invasive, ER+, and ductal carcinoma; there were more cancers with missing PR status than missing ER status [67 vs 26], and the negative predictive value for self-reported PR status was lower than that for ER, so PR status was not used in the analyses).

All statistical analyses were carried out using the SAS software, PHREG procedure, version 9.2 (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC). Maximum likelihood methods were used to estimate the odds ratios and P values are based on likelihood ratio tests. All statistical tests were two-sided and P values less than .05 were considered statistically significant.

Results

The mean age of control sisters was 47.7 years (standard deviation [SD] = 6.2 years) at enrollment, and the mean age of case sisters was 44.7 years (SD = 4.0 years) at diagnosis. The youngest age at diagnosis was 28 years. Of the 1422 case sisters, 621 (43.7%) were diagnosed before age 45 years, and 203 (14.3%) were diagnosed before age 40 years. A total of 1185 (84.0%) case sisters had invasive tumors (n = 12 missing data), 1095 (78.4%) had ER+ tumors (n = 26 missing data), 962 (71.0%) had PR+ tumors (n = 67 missing data), and 1229 (87.8%) had ductal tumors (n = 23 missing data).

Most (90%) of the families were non-Hispanic white and most participants (90%) had completed some college (Table 1). Compared with control sisters, case sisters reported a statistically significantly (P < .05) younger age at menarche, older age at first birth, were more likely to report having taken hormonal birth control pills for more than 10 years, were less likely to have had low BMI at age 30–39 years, and less likely to have experienced menopause before the index age. There were no substantial differences in education, parity, breastfeeding, smoking, or alcohol drinking.

Table 1.
Characteristics of participant sisters at index age in the
Two Sister Study*

Women who reported use of CC alone (n = 193 women) or both CC and FSH (n = 66 women) showed a non-statistically significantly reduced odds of young-onset breast cancer compared with nonusers of these drugs (Table 2). However, after adjusting for exposure to a 10+ week stimulated pregnancy, compared with nonusers, women who had taken CC only or both CC and FSH, but without success (ie, without a pregnancy that lasted ≥10 weeks), were less likely to be diagnosed with young-onset breast cancer (CC only, OR = 0.61, 95% CI = 0.41 to 0.90; CC and FSH, OR = 0.53; 95% CI = 0.29 to 0.96; Table 2). Use of FSH only (n = 29 women: 17 case sisters and 12 control sisters) without success was not associated with risk (OR = 1.03, 95% CI = 0.44 to 2.40), but the number of exclusive users of FSH was small. When the fit of the model (Model I) that treated the fertility-drug-use histories as four categories (nonusers, users of CC only, FSH only, or both CC and FSH) was compared with that of a simpler model where the ovulation-stimulating drugs were aggregated to form just two categories (exposed or not), as in Model II (Table 2), the loss of goodness of fit was not statistically significant (P > .30), indicating that the effects of CC and FSH were not distinguishable in our data. Women with a history of use of fertility drugs (aggregated) showed a non-statistically significantly decreased risk compared with women who were nonusers (OR = 0.82, 95% CI = 0.63 to 1.08). However, as shown in Table 2, when the occurrence of pregnancy was included in the model, women who used fertility drugs, but had not conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment, showed a statistically significantly decreased risk of breast cancer compared with nonusers (OR = 0.62, 95% CI = 0.43 to 0.89). Women who used fertility drugs and had conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment showed a statistically significantly increased risk of breast cancer compared with other users (unsuccessfully treated; OR = 1.82, 95% CI = 1.10 to 3.00; Table 2). Note that in this model, the comparison for those treated but without a consequent 10+ week pregnancy is with women without a history of use of ovulation-stimulating drugs, whereas the comparison for treated women with a stimulated
10+ week pregnancy is with other (unsuccessfully treated) women who also used ovulation-stimulating drugs. Overall, women who received treatment and conceived under treatment did not
have a statistically significantly increased risk of breast cancer compared with untreated women (OR = 0.62 × 1.82 = 1.13, 95% CI = 0.78 to 1.64).

Table 2.
Associations of young-onset breast cancer with fertility drugs and stimulated pregnancies*

We conducted further analyses to explore the factors (menopausal status at index age, whether or not the first use preceded the first birth, whether or not their first pregnancy was a stimulated pregnancy, age at first use, ER status of the cancer, and whether or not it was invasive) that might modify the associations of fertility-drug use and stimulated pregnancy with risk of breast cancer, and to explore evidence for a dose–response relationship with the number of treated cycles or the number of stimulated 10+ week pregnancies. There were no statistically significant findings (data not shown), but there was a suggestion of a stronger association with stimulated pregnancy if it had been their first birth (OR = 2.04, 95% CI = 1.16 to 3.58),
especially if the cancer was invasive and ER+ (OR = 2.69, 95%
CI = 1.32 to 5.49). The class of fertility drug did not appear to modify the association between stimulated pregnancy and risk (P = .86).
In exploratory dose–response analyses, the number of stimulated pregnancies was not statistically significantly related to risk (P = .13), nor was the number of treated menstrual cycles (P = .88).

When analyses were restricted to ER+ invasive breast cancer
(n = 907 case sisters), the results were similar (Table 3). Stratification by combined ER and PR status or restriction to ductal carcinoma did
not substantially modify the associations between fertility drugs and
stimulated pregnancies with risk of breast cancer (data not shown).

Table 3.
Associations of invasive estrogen receptor–positive
young-onset breast cancer with fertility drugs and stimulated pregnancies*

Age at first use showed no statistically significant modification of the associations across categories of fertility drugs. Although there was some evidence for elevated risk in women who had used both CC and FSH, with first use after age 35 years (Supplementary Table 2, available online), the numbers in this category were too small for reliable inference. The patterns of association were similar for women whose first use of these drugs preceded their first birth compared with those whose first use came later (data not shown; P interaction = .49).

Discussion

In this sister-matched case–control study, the Two Sister Study, we analytically differentiated between users of ovulation-stimulating drugs who conceived vs those who did not conceive under treatment, to account for the fact that there are known hormonal effects of ovarian stimulation in the first trimester of pregnancy. We found statistically significantly reduced risk of young-onset breast cancer in women with a history of unsuccessful use of ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs compared with nonusers. Women who had used fertility drugs and had conceived a 10+ week pregnancy under treatment were at statistically significantly increased risk of young-onset breast cancer compared with unsuccessfully treated women, but had risk similar to that of nonusers.

The most widely used fertility drug, CC, is classified as a selective estrogen-receptor modulator (SERM) and acts as an estrogen antagonist in the hypothalamus by binding to the ERs and blocking the effects of estrogen (36). Given its mode of action and its short duration of use, we doubt that unsuccessful cycles of CC use (usually fewer than six) would plausibly pharmacologically protect against breast cancer. However, a history of CC use could serve as a marker for historically lower average endogenous estrogen levels in women with categories of infertility for which CC is prescribed. CC is often the preferred first treatment for patients with polycystic ovarian syndrome or suspected ovulatory dysfunction.

Others have reported apparent protection (ie, association with reduced risk) in women who took CC. In the Nurse’s Health Study II, women who had undergone CC treatment for ovulatory infertility had reduced risk of breast cancer (15). Some studies have found increased risk in specified subgroups, such as CC-treated infertile women with nonovulatory disorders (19) and CC users more than 20 years after treatment (31).

We were unable to distinguish the associations of CC with risk of breast cancer from those of FSH, which is the primary ovulation stimulator used in IVF protocols, but we had a few participants who had only been exposed to FSH and not CC. However, the point estimate for unsuccessful use of FSH alone was 1.03, suggesting that conception under treatment with FSH could confer increased risk compared with untreated women (OR = 1.03 × 1.82 = 1.87). Consistent with our data, several studies have reported increased risk of breast cancer in FSH users (26,30). IVF (using FSH) is attempted for a diverse array of diagnoses, including tubal occlusion and male factor infertility. However, for women with either ovulatory dysfunction or infertility of uncertain cause but with patent oviducts, FSH is probably prescribed only after CC has failed. Thus, the small category of women with history of FSH use but no CC use would likely comprise women with fertility problems for which CC was not tried because it could not succeed, such as tubal occlusion, and specific indications for nonuse of CC might explain a lack of protective association in these women.

No previous study simultaneously accounted for stimulated pregnancy and use of fertility drugs, instead effectively aggregating two very different exposure histories. Our data suggest that exposure to a stimulated pregnancy is enough to undo the reduction in risk associated with a history of exposure to ovulation-stimulating drugs. In young women, increased breast cell differentiation during pregnancy can lead to a long-term protective effect. Ovulation-stimulating treatment causes abnormally high exposure to ovarian hormones during the first 9 weeks of pregnancy (7,8) and could potentially raise risk by modifying breast tissue remodeling (37).

Fourteen of 23 earlier studies followed up infertile women or women who sought infertility treatment in clinics (13,14,16–22,25,26,28,29,31), of which one study (comparing women with IVF-based deliveries to other women delivering during the same interval in Sweden) found a statistically significant reduced risk (25) and others found no association or increased risk. Two studies (11,23) recruited participants who had given birth. The Jerusalem Perinatal Study reported a borderline statistically significantly increased risk of breast cancer among CC users compared with women who conceived spontaneously (11). A study of Swedish women with live births found no statistically significant association with IVF, but the follow-up period was short (23). In both designs, treated women with stimulated pregnancy would be overrepresented.

Our sister-based design provided several advantages and
opportunities. Sisters tend to be well matched for social factors, health care–seeking behaviors, and other unmeasured potential confounders. We were able to identify and enroll a large sample of young-onset case sisters by approaching their already-enrolled unaffected sister. This strategy produced a large sample of highly motivated participants.

This study has a few limitations. We relied on self-reported fertility-drug use, and recall bias may be present. We enhanced recall by providing lists of medication names in the interview materials. In addition, infertility treatment is a major life event, and likely to be remembered. A second limitation is that we do not have data on the specific diagnosis for infertility. However, reliable information on diagnosis is hard to obtain, because infertility workups are complex, time-consuming, often inconclusive, and frequently cut short by conception. Patients may be managed empirically (without a definitive diagnosis) with CC, which is widely regarded as inexpensive, safe, noninvasive, and effective. Another limitation of our design is that case sisters were on average younger than control sisters. By considering exposures up to the same index age for both case sisters and control sisters, we ensured that sisters being compared had similar opportunities for exposure. Nevertheless, by adopting this strategy, we had to neglect exposures that may have occurred between the index age and the age at diagnosis (for case sisters) or the age at interview (for control sisters). However, only one control sister (and no case sister) was first exposed to fertility drugs during that interval. Finally, we delayed contact for at least a year after diagnosis to allow for treatment and recovery, and some case sisters with more aggressive cancers may have died before we could contact them. Although only 91 case sisters were excluded because the control sister reported they had died, some of the other nonresponders may have been deceased or too sick, and consequently some of our findings may not apply to particularly aggressive cancers. The use of sister controls, however, confers internal validity through case–control comparisons.

In conclusion, in this sister-based case–control study, a history of unsuccessful use of ovulation-stimulating fertility drugs was associated with a statistically significantly reduced risk of young-onset breast cancer, but the occurrence of a stimulated 10+ week pregnancy appeared to offset the protective association. Use of fertility drugs, particularly CC, may have pharmacological effects (38) and could (more plausibly) serve as a marker for a different hormonal milieu in women with categories of infertility for which CC is used. For those who achieve conception through treatment, the elevated production of ovarian hormones early in a stimulated pregnancy might increase the risk of breast cancer by modifying pregnancy-related remodeling of breast tissue (37).

Funding

Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Z01-ES044005 [CRW] and Z01-ES102245 [DPS]). Additional funding: Susan G. Komen for the Cure (FAS0703856 to CRW).

Notes

We thank Dr Donna Baird and Dr Allen Wilcox of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for helpful comments on the paper.

Aside from receiving yearly progress reports and their original decision to approve the project, Susan G. Komen for the Cure had no role, and the authors are responsible for the design and conduct of this study; collection, analysis, and interpretation of the data; and preparation of this article.

Acknowledgments

Affiliations of authors: Biostatistics Branch (CF, CRW) and Epidemiology Branch (LAD, DPS), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, NC.

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