Chronic inflammation, long known as the scourge that turns arteries into plaque magnets, may also predict whether breast cancer is likely to recur. That's according to a new finding published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The researchers found that breast cancer patients with high levels of inflammation had about twice the risk of experiencing a relapse and of dying sooner from their cancer than those with low levels of the markers. "Inflammation may encourage tumors to grow or promote the development of blood vessels that allow cancer cells to spread," says study coauthor Rachel Ballard-Barbash, associate director of the applied research program at the National Cancer Institute.
The study measured two inflammation markers in the blood: high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) and serum amyloid A (SAA). Both are checked by doctors to assess heart disease risk; in fact, the CRP screen has become widely popular, especially after a study published last year found that treating high CRP levels with statin drugs could prevent heart attacks and strokes. The new study is intriguing because it "provides some of the most persuasive evidence yet that chronic inflammation might increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence," Steven Cole, a cancer researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine, writes in an editorial that accompanied the study. The researchers took into account other factors that could increase relapse risk, such as the size and type of tumor, a woman's age, and whether she was overweight.
The notion that inflammation could also be involved in triggering cancer is still fairly new. "We're about a decade behind where we were with heart disease," says Cole. So there's no evidence yet to suggest that lowering CRP levels with, say, a statin drug will reduce a woman's risk of having a breast cancer recurrence. Thus, Cole and Ballard-Barbash agree, it's too soon to use statins for this purpose.
There are, though, some healthful lifestyle approaches that can help reduce inflammation. The biggest steps, Cole says, are to quit smoking and shed excess body fat. Studies suggest keeping your body mass index below 25 will help prevent breast cancer. (Here's how to calculate your body mass index and how successful quitters stop smoking.) Steady exercise (biking, swimming, running) for an hour a day three to four days a week is key, too. Beyond that, avoiding excess alcohol consumption—more than a drink or two a day—can help control inflammation, as can reducing stress through relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga. "Women need to understand that these things won't guarantee that they'll stay cancer free, but they'll at least improve their odds a little bit," says Cole.