Breast-Feeding: Early Influences on Later Health

Volume 639 of the series Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology pp 167-198

Do Infants Who Are Breast-fed Have an Altered Risk of Developing Cancer?

  • R. MartinAffiliated withDepartment of Social Medicine, University of Bristol
  • , G. Davey SmithAffiliated withDepartment of Social Medicine, University of Bristol
  • , D. GunnellAffiliated withDepartment of Social Medicine, University of Bristol

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The idea that breast-fed infants may be at an increased risk of cancer has been around for at least 60 years. In the 1930s, John Bittner hypothesised on the basis of mouse studies that a factor, perhaps an oncogenic virus, transmitted through the mother’s milk was a cause of breast cancer in the offspring.1 Indeed, in the late 1960s mothers with a family history of breast cancer were advised not to breast-feed their daughters for fear of increasing their child’s risk of breast cancer.2 This historical context highlights the potentially important health policy and public health implications of understanding the long-term health consequences of being breast-fed. Whilst associations with cardiovascular disease have been the subject of a series of recent studies3–4, there has been less focus on cancer. As well as breast cancer5, other cancers have been reported in the epidemiological literature to be associated with having been breast-fed in infancy, including childhood haematological and solid tumours6, and testicular cancer in young men7 (Box 1).