Women with a history of pre-eclampsia are at increased risk of cancer, particularly cancers of the stomach, breast, ovary, lung and larynx, according to a Columbia University study recently published by the British Medical Journal. Researchers studied 37,000 women in western Jerusalem, Israel, who delivered babies in three large hospitals between 1964 and 1976.
"The risk of breast cancer was significantly increased for pre-eclamptic women after taking into account differences in age and number of children," said Susan Harlap, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health, who led the study.
"Particular environmental and genetic factors that are common to the development of both pre-eclampsia and cancer may explain these findings in this unique population," she said.
Pre-eclampsia, an abnormal increase in blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy, is an important cause of short-term mortality for both fetus and mother, and has been associated with increased long-term mortality for mothers, mainly from cardiovascular causes. While previous studies have suggested an association between pre-eclampsia and cancer, the evidence was inconsistent. "The longer follow-up in the current study may have brought to light associations which could not be observed by others," Harlap explained.
The findings are based on her work with the Jerusalem Perinatal Cohort, which is part of the life course studies program within the Mailman School's Department of Epidemiology.
Department Chair Ezra Susser has been building a program of life course research in which epidemiologists seek to uncover the causes of a broad range of disease and health outcomes, following individuals from an early point in life and examining their risks for disease. Life course studies are particularly well positioned to examine the interplay of genetic and environmental risk factors—the key to understanding many complex diseases.
Harlap led an international team of scientists, including Ora Paltiel, Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Hadassah-Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and first author of the study.