Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century nun was celebrated for her intellect, writings, and notably for her extraordinary visions – also known as migraine auras. Ask any migraineur about the scintillating scotomas preceding a migraine, and you’re likely to receive a flinching look in return. Migraines with aura are chronic headaches characterized by specific neurological symptoms – visual disturbances, nausea, sensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and usually accompanied with an unilateral blinding headache—the hallmark TKO of migraines.
Now it appears that female migraineurs might find an unexpected silver lining in the migraine cloud – researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington published a report in the Journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention that finds women with a history of migraines may have their breast cancer risk lowered by about 30%. Although the reason behind the protective effect of migraines remains unclear, some researchers believe the link is hormonal in nature, and attributable to low estrogen levels – a known migraine trigger for some (but not all) women.
The study surveyed over 4,000 female long-term breast cancer survivors, aged between 34 and 64. Participants reported their clinical history, lifestyle habits (such as smoking, diet, drinking), and any diagnosis of migraines. This group was matched with another group of 4,000 women who were cancer-free. The findings were intriguing, especially when you consider that the lower cancer risk among migraineurs did not change even when factors such as onset of migraines, history of prescription medication for the treatment of migraines, and menopausal status were considered.
Others researchers are far less convinced by the hormone link citing that both genetic and exogenous factors may have a more important role in the migraine-breast cancer link. However, for now, the preliminary findings of the study might bring some belated comfort to fellow migraineurs. Perhaps I’ll keep it in mind the next time I’m writhing in the throes of a migraine.