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High Cholesterol Fuels Breast Cancer Cells

High Cholesterol Fuels Breast Cancer Cells

Keeping your cholesterol levels within a healthy range helps lower your risk for heart attack and stroke. For women, there’s an added cholesterol connection: breast cancer.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that helps your body build cells, and make vitamins and other hormones. It is categorized as “good” or “bad” cholesterol. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is good, and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is bad. Too much of the bad kind, or not enough of the good kind, increases the risk cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain.

Smoking, a lack of physical activity and certain eating habits can result in too much cholesterol in the body, which can lead to negative health issues such as heart attacks and strokes.

If you struggle with chronic high cholesterol, you’re at an increased risk of breast cancer spreading and for having worse outcomes. Until now, medical experts didn’t fully understand the link between the two, but breakthrough research is starting to uncover more of the “why.”

A new study from researchers at Duke Cancer Institute shows that breast cancer cells use cholesterol to develop tolerance to stress, making the cells more resilient and less likely to die. As cancer cells move from the original tumor, they become stressed and “gobble” cholesterol in response to the stress. Most of them die, but the ones that survive come away even stronger and more resistant to stress. Even worse, they multiply and metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body.

Finding this link means doctors can work to develop therapies that target this process and create better treatment for advanced breast cancer.

Many patients with high cholesterol are treated with statins, the most common group of cholesterol-lowering medications. A study from the UK found that women with high cholesterol have significantly lower rates of breast cancer and improved mortality, and points to statins as the possible reason. It’s not clear yet if this is because of the preventive effects of statins or another aspect of the medications and cancer growth, and research continues to try to better understand this link.

As research continues, remember that healthy eating habits, regular exercise, and lowering LDL cholesterol all benefit cancer prevention, as well as improve your overall life and prevent other serious health issues. 

A mammogram can often find or detect breast cancer early when it is most treatable. Click here to schedule your annual mammogram.