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Childhood growth in girls could hold key to identifying risk of developing cancer


Monday 18 November 2002


A unique study by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research has shown that the height and weight of girls before they reach puberty can determine the likelihood of them developing cancer at a young age.

An international team of scientists led by Professor Anthony Swerdlow from The Institute of Cancer Research, identified 400 sets of twins in England and Wales, Denmark, Finland and Sweden where one had developed breast cancer before the menopause.

The twins were each asked a series of questions about themselves and their twin, and answers were compared to find factors that were more common in the sisters who had developed breast cancer. When responses were analysed, the investigators found that twins who were lighter in weight and taller than their sister at the age of 10, were more likely to go on to develop breast cancer before the menopause. Also twins who developed breasts at a younger age than their twin sister, and who had a smaller waist to hip ratio at aged 20 were more likely to develop breast cancer.

Professor Swerdlow explains the method: “Comparing twins was an exceptional way to gain information about women at a young age. It is usually difficult to gain reliable information about possible causal factors in childhood from adults with cancer.”

The research comes as new government figures show that 37,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year. It is the most common form of the disease among women in westernised countries, accounting for more than 1 in 4 female cancers in the UK. One in nine women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.

This study adds to increasing evidence that the development of breast cancer can also be attributed to influences at key stages throughout a woman’s life. There is evidence that factors can act prenatally, in childhood and puberty, in relation to reproduction or during and after the menopause.

In searching for the causes of breast cancer, some scientists have suspected that there may be a link between childhood growth and the development of breast cancer. However the difficulty in obtaining accurate information about cancer patients when they were children has until now prevented a large-scale twin study taking place.

Professor Swerdlow explains: “By drawing on the unique experience of twins in several countries, we were able to gain new data on the way in which factors in childhood may affect cancer risks decades later, and, we hope, to improve our understanding of the causes of this disease.”

Professor Peter Rigby, Chief Executive of The Institute said: “The results of this unique study bring us a step closer to understanding the factors which can lead to the development of breast cancer. We hope that additional research can identify the factors, why they produce this effect, and how it can be prevented.”


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For more information, please contact:
Marie MacLean
Press Officer
Institute of Cancer Research
Tel: 020 7970 6056
Email: [email protected]

Katy Bell
Communications Manager
Institute of Cancer Research
Tel:020 7970 6029
Mobile: 07768 904621
Email: [email protected]

Notes to editors

  1. Twins were identified over periods of many years in each of the countries. The methods used for identification of twins varied between the countries taking part. Data was then obtained about height, weight and other factors by interview or postal questionnaire.
  2. Numerous funding bodies aided work on this study including, in the UK, the Medical Research Council. The collection of data in England and Wales that contributed to the study was funded by Cancer Research UK.
  3. The Institute of Cancer Research is one of the world's leading cancer research organisations and is internationally renowned for the quality of its science. Its mission is the relief of human suffering by pursuing excellence in the fight against cancer. The Institute is an associate institution of the University of London. The Institute works in a unique partnership with The Royal Marsden Hospital and together they form Europe’s largest comprehensive cancer centre.

Please note:
Unfortunately the press office are unable to answer queries from the general public. For general cancer information please refer to The Institute's cancer information page.

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