Using data from the French E3N prospective cohort, Marina Kvaskoff and colleagues examine the association between number of cutaneous nevi and the risk for breast cancer.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
While melanocytic nevi have been associated with genetic factors and childhood sun exposure, several observations also suggest a potential hormonal influence on nevi. To test the hypothesis that nevi are associated with breast tumor risk, we explored the relationships between number of nevi and benign and malignant breast disease risk.
Methods and Findings
We prospectively analyzed data from E3N, a cohort of French women aged 40–65 y at inclusion in 1990. Number of nevi was collected at inclusion. Hazard ratios (HRs) for breast cancer and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were calculated using Cox proportional hazards regression models. Associations of number of nevi with personal history of benign breast disease (BBD) and family history of breast cancer were estimated using logistic regression. Over the period 15 June 1990–15 June 2008, 5,956 incident breast cancer cases (including 5,245 invasive tumors) were ascertained among 89,902 women. In models adjusted for age, education, and known breast cancer risk factors, women with “very many” nevi had a significantly higher breast cancer risk (HR = 1.13, 95% CI = 1.01–1.27 versus “none”; ptrend = 0.04), although significance was lost after adjustment for personal history of BBD or family history of breast cancer. The 10-y absolute risk of invasive breast cancer increased from 3,749 per 100,000 women without nevi to 4,124 (95% CI = 3,674–4,649) per 100,000 women with “very many” nevi. The association was restricted to premenopausal women (HR = 1.40, ptrend = 0.01), even after full adjustment (HR = 1.34, ptrend = 0.03; phomogeneity = 0.04), but did not differ according to breast cancer type or hormone receptor status. In addition, we observed significantly positive dose–response relationships between number of nevi and history of biopsy-confirmed BBD (n = 5,169; ptrend<0.0001) and family history of breast cancer in first-degree relatives (n = 7,472; ptrend = 0.0003). The main limitations of our study include self-report of number of nevi using a qualitative scale, and self-reported history of biopsied BBD.
Our findings suggest associations between number of nevi and the risk of premenopausal breast cancer, BBD, and family history of breast cancer. More research is warranted to elucidate these relationships and to understand their underlying mechanisms.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In 2012, nearly 1.7 million women worldwide discovered they had breast cancer, and about half a million women died from the disease. Breast cancer begins when cells in the breast acquire genetic changes that allow them to divide uncontrollably and to move around the body (metastasize). Uncontrolled cell division leads to the formation of a lump that can be detected by mammography (a breast X-ray) or by manual breast examination. Breast cancer is treated by surgical removal of the lump, or, if the cancer has started to spread, by removal of the whole breast (mastectomy). Surgery is usually followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Because the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone stimulate the growth of some tumors, drugs that block hormone receptors are also used to treat receptor-positive breast cancer. Nowadays, the prognosis (outlook) for women with breast cancer is good, and in developed countries, nearly 90% of affected women are still alive five years after diagnosis.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several hormone-related factors affect a woman's chances of developing breast cancer. For example, women who have no children or who have them late in life have a higher breast cancer risk than women who have several children when they are young because pregnancy alters sex hormone levels. Interestingly, the development of moles (nevi)—dark skin blemishes that are risk factors for the development of melanoma, a type of skin cancer—may also be affected by estrogen and progesterone. Thus, the number of nevi might be a marker of blood hormone levels and might predict breast cancer risk. In this prospective cohort study, the researchers test this hypothesis by investigating the association between how many moles a woman has and her breast cancer risk. A prospective cohort study enrolls a group (cohort) of people, determines their baseline characteristics, and follows them over time to see which characteristics are associated with the development of specific diseases.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In 1990, the E3N prospective cohort study enrolled nearly 100,000 French women (mainly school teachers) aged 40–65 years to investigate cancer risk factors. The women completed a baseline questionnaire about their lifestyle and medical history, and regular follow-up questionnaires that asked about cancer occurrence. In the initial questionnaire, the women indicated whether they had no, a few, many, or very many moles. Between 1990 and 2008, nearly 6,000 women in the cohort developed breast cancer. Using statistical methods to calculate hazard ratios (an “HR” compares how often a particular event happens in two groups with different characteristics; an HR greater than one indicates that a specific characteristic is associated with an increased risk of the event), the researchers report that women with “very many” nevi had a significantly higher breast cancer risk (a higher risk that was unlikely to have occurred by chance) than women with no nevi. Specifically, the age-adjusted HR for breast cancer among women with “very many” nevi compared to women with no nevi was 1.17. After adjustment for a personal history of benign (noncancerous) breast disease and a family history of breast cancer (two established risk factors for breast cancer), the association between nevi and breast cancer risk among the whole cohort became nonsignificant. Notably, however, the association among only premenopausal women remained significant after full adjustment (HR = 1.34), which corresponded to an increase in ten-year absolute risk of invasive breast cancer from 2,515 per 100,000 women with no nevi to 3,370 per 100,000 women with “very many” nevi.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that among premenopausal women there is a modest association between nevi number and breast cancer risk. This noncausal relationship may indicate that nevi and breast diseases are affected in similar ways by hormones or share common genetic factors, but the accuracy of these findings may be limited by aspects of the study design. For example, self-report of nevi numbers using a qualitative scale may have introduced some inaccuracies into the estimates of the association between nevi number and breast cancer risk. Most importantly, these findings are insufficient to support the use of nevi counts in breast cancer screening or diagnosis. Rather, together with the findings reported by Zhang et al. in an independent PLOS Medicine Research Article, they suggest that further studies into the biological mechanisms underlying the relationship between nevi and breast cancer and the association itself should be undertaken.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001660.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Fuhrman and Cardenas
An independent PLOS Medicine
Research Article by Zhang et al. also investigates the relationship between nevi number and breast cancer risk
The US National Cancer Institute provides comprehensive information about cancer (in English and Spanish), including detailed information for patients and professionals about breast cancer; it also has a fact sheet on moles
Cancer Research UK, a not-for profit organization, provides information about cancer, including detailed information on breast cancer
The UK National Health Service Choices website has information and personal stories about breast cancer; the not-for profit organization Healthtalkonline also provides personal stories about dealing with breast cancer
More information about the E3N prospective cohort study is available; detailed information is available in French