August 14, 2014

Breast cancer risk and exercise

Stuff has a story from the LA Times about exercise and breast cancer risk.  There’s a new research paper based on a large French population study, where women who ended up having a breast cancer diagnosis were less likely to have exercised regularly for the past five year period.  This is just observational correlation, and although it’s a big study, with 2000 breast cancer cases in over 50000 women, the evidence is not all that strong (the uncertainty range around the 10% risk reduction given in the paper goes from an 18% reduction down to a 1% reduction).  Given that,  I’m a bit unhappy with the strength of the language in the story:

For women past childbearing age, a new study finds that a modest amount of exercise — four hours a week of walking or more intensive physical activity such as cycling for just two hours a week — drives down breast cancer risk by roughly 10 per cent.

There’s a more dramatically wrong numerical issue towards the end of the story, though:

The medications tamoxifen and raloxifene can also drive down the risk of breast cancer in those at higher than average risk. They come with side effects such as an increased risk of deep-vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, and their powers of risk reduction are actually pretty modest: If 1000 women took either tamoxifen or raloxifene for five years, eight breast cancers would be prevented.

By comparison, regular physical activity is powerful.

Using relative risk reduction for the (potential) benefits of exercise and absolute risk reduction for the benefits of the drugs is misleading. Using the breast cancer risk assessment tool from the National Cancer Institute, the five-year breast cancer risk for a typical 60 year old is perhaps 2%. That agrees with the study’s 2000 cases in 52000 women followed for at least nine years.  If 1000 women with that level of risk took up regular exercise for five years, and if the benefits were real,  two breast cancers would be prevented.

Exercise is much less powerful than the drugs, but it’s cheap, doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription, and the side-effects on other diseases are beneficial, not harmful.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

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