Menstrual cycle characteristics and incident cancer: a prospective cohort study

This article was originally published here

Hum Reprod. 2021 Dec 10:deab251. doi: 10.1093/humrep/deab251. Online ahead of print.


STUDY QUESTION: Are menstrual cycle characteristics throughout the reproductive lifespan associated with cancer risk?

SUMMARY ANSWER: Irregular and long menstrual cycles throughout the reproductive lifespan were associated with increased risk of total invasive cancer, especially obesity-related cancers.

WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Long and irregular menstrual cycles have been associated with lower risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer and higher risk of endometrial cancer, but associations with other malignancies are less clear.

STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION: Prospective cohort study. Prospective follow-up of 78 943 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II between 1989 and 2015.

PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS: We followed 78 943 pre-menopausal women without cancer history who reported the usual length and regularity of their menstrual cycles at different ages (14-17, 18-22 and 29-46 years). Cancer diagnosis was confirmed through medical record review and classified as obesity-related (colorectal, gallbladder, kidney, multiple myeloma, thyroid, pancreatic, esophageal, gastric, liver, endometrial, ovarian and post-menopausal breast) or non-obesity-related. We fitted Cox proportional hazards models to estimate hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% CIs of the association between menstrual cycle characteristics and cancer incidence.

MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: We documented 5794 incident cancer cases during 1 646 789 person-years of follow-up. After adjusting for BMI and other potential confounders, women reporting irregular cycles at age 29-46 years had an 11% (95% CI: 2-21%) higher risk of total invasive cancer than women reporting very regular cycles at the same age. This association was limited to obesity-related cancers, with a 23% (95% CI: 9-39%) higher risk and was strongest for endometrial cancer (HR = 1.39; 95% CI: 1.09-1.77). Findings were comparable for cycle characteristics earlier in life and for menstrual cycle length. Very irregular cycles at age 14-17 years were associated with significant increase in risk of colorectal cancer (HR = 1.36; 95% CI: 1.02-1.81).

LIMITATIONS, REASONS FOR CAUTION: Our study might be subject to recall bias for findings pertaining to cycle characteristics in adolescence and early adulthood, as these were retrospectively reported. Generalizability to non-White women may be limited, as 96% of participants were White.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: Women with irregular or long menstrual cycles in mid-adulthood had a statistically significantly higher risk of developing cancer, especially obesity-related cancers. This association was not limited to gynecological cancers. Obesity-related cancers may need to be added to the spectrum of long-term health consequences of long or irregular cycles, possibly warranting targeted screening among women who experience long or irregular cycles in mid-adulthood.

STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTEREST: This work was supported by grants U01 CA176726, U01 HL145386 and R01 HD096033 from the National Institutes of Health. The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.


PMID:34893843 | DOI:10.1093/humrep/deab251