It has become conventional wisdom that estrogenic stimulation of breast tissue has something to do with the causation of breast cancer and that the reason obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer is that obese women are hyperestrogenized. However, it has been very difficult to demonstrate that excessive exogenous estrogen increases the incidence of breast cancer, that endogenous estrogen excess is present in breast cancer, or that obese women are hyperestrogenized. We have examined the last question by measuring 24-hr mean plasma estrone and estradiol levels in the midfollicular phase in 18 healthy, regularly cycling, very obese (53 to 218% above ideal weight) women and 16 regularly cycling, age matched, nonobese control women. Unlike obese men, the obese women showed no significant elevation of either estrone or estradiol. Their average estrone level was 72 compared with 64 pg/ml in controls; their average estradiol level was 65 compared with 57 pg/ml in controls. In the combined group (obese plus nonobese), there was a significant correlation of percentage of deviation from ideal weight with plasma estrone (y - 63 + 0.12x; p < 0.05) but not with estradiol. This correlation supports the current hypothesis that there is increased androstenedione → estrone conversion (i.e., increased aromatase activity) in obesity. The reason plasma estrone levels are not significantly elevated in obese women is that the small amount derived from androstenedione is swamped by the much larger amount derived from ovarian secretion, which is apparently unaffected by obesity. Unless there is increased local formation of estrogens in the breast tissue of obese women, the absence of elevated plasma estrogens in them means that their breasts are not “seeing” increased estrogen levels. Thus, endogenous hyperestrogenization is unlikely to be a causative factor of breast cancer in obese women.
Presented at the Conference “Aromatase: New Perspectives for Breast Cancer,” December 6 to 9, 1981, Key Biscayne, Fla, Fla. This work was supported by Grants RR-53, HL-14734, CA-07304, and CA-22795 from the NIH and Contract F-496270-79-C-0136 from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research.