Exploring the Link Between Diabetes and Breast Cancer Risk: Insights from a UK Biobank Study


The global prevalence of diabetes has reached epidemic proportions, with an estimated 463 million adults living with the condition in 2019. This public health challenge has prompted extensive research into the various health implications associated with diabetes. One such area of investigation is the potential link between diabetes and breast cancer, which remains the most common cancer among women worldwide. A recent study published in the British Journal of Cancer, conducted a team of researchers led by Dr. Rebecca E. Graff  at University of California, San Francisco sheds light on this critical issue. The study aimed to evaluate the associations between different types of diabetes (type 1 and type 2) and breast cancer risk, using data from the UK Biobank cohort.

Diabetes mellitus encompasses two primary disease processes: type 1 diabetes (T1D) and type 2 diabetes (T2D). T2D is the most prevalent form, accounting for approximately 90% of diabetes cases worldwide. It is characterized by reduced insulin sensitivity and/or impaired insulin release, typically associated with factors such as obesity and sedentary lifestyles. In contrast, T1D is an autoimmune disease characterized by the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, leading to deficient insulin production. While the association between T2D and cancer risk has been extensively studied, investigations into the relationship between T1D and cancer remain limited.

Breast cancer is the leading cancer diagnosed in women globally, with over 2 million new cases reported in 2020 alone. Several potential biological pathways have been proposed to explain the link between diabetes and breast cancer, including alterations in the insulin-like growth factor (IGF) axis, hyperglycemia, inflammation, and changes in sex hormone levels. Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, which are less prominent in T1D compared to T2D, may contribute to these pathways. Previous meta-analyses and cohort studies have suggested an increased risk of breast cancer in individuals with diabetes, particularly in postmenopausal women. However, these findings have been inconsistent and subject to heterogeneity among studies, making it challenging to draw definitive conclusions.

Before delving into the specifics of the UK Biobank study, it is essential to address the heterogeneity of findings in previous research. Many previous studies did not adequately differentiate between T1D and T2D, often focusing primarily on T2D. This is problematic because T1D and T2D have distinct etiologies, age of onset, treatment strategies, and body compositions, with individuals with T1D generally being leaner than those with T2D. Therefore, it is crucial to examine these two diabetes subtypes separately when investigating their associations with breast cancer.

The UK Biobank is a large-scale prospective cohort study that enrolled over 500,000 adults between 2006 and 2010. The recent study in question utilized data from 250,312 women aged 40 to 69 years within this cohort. Participants provided extensive baseline information, including self-reported data on diabetes status and various health-related factors.

No Overall Association Between Diabetes and Breast Cancer: The analysis found no significant overall association between diabetes and breast cancer risk in the cohort (adjusted hazard ratio (aHR) = 1.02, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.92–1.14). This result implies that, on average, diabetes does not appear to substantially increase breast cancer risk in this population.

Increased Breast Cancer Risk in Type 1 Diabetes: Interestingly, women with T1D were found to have a higher risk of breast cancer compared to those without diabetes (aHR = 1.52, 95% CI = 1.03–2.23). This observation suggests that T1D may be associated with an elevated breast cancer risk.

Temporal Relationship with Type 2 Diabetes: In the case of T2D, the study revealed a unique temporal relationship. While T2D was not associated with breast cancer risk overall (aHR = 1.00, 95% CI = 0.90–1.12), there was a significantly increased risk of breast cancer shortly after T2D diagnosis. However, beyond the initial period following T2D diagnosis (approximately 10 years), the breast cancer risk in T2D patients reversed, showing a reduced risk compared to those without diabetes.

The results of the UK Biobank study provide valuable insights into the complex relationship between diabetes and breast cancer. Several key points warrant discussion and further investigation:

Type-Specific Associations: The study underscores the importance of distinguishing between T1D and T2D when examining the link with breast cancer. While T1D appears to be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, T2D exhibits a more nuanced relationship. The initial elevation in breast cancer risk following T2D diagnosis may be attributable to increased healthcare interactions and subsequent screening. However, the subsequent decline in risk after approximately 10 years suggests that other factors, such as disease duration, medication use, or lifestyle changes, may be at play. Further research is needed to elucidate these mechanisms.

The study mentions several potential biological mechanisms linking diabetes and breast cancer, including insulin-like growth factors, hyperglycemia, inflammation, and hormonal changes. Investigating these pathways in more detail could provide crucial insights into the underlying mechanisms driving the observed associations.

The initial increase in breast cancer risk following T2D diagnosis highlights the potential impact of detection bias. Patients newly diagnosed with diabetes may have more frequent healthcare visits and, therefore, increased opportunities for breast cancer screening. Understanding the role of detection bias and its implications for breast cancer incidence is vital for interpreting these findings accurately.

The study primarily includes participants of European descent, limiting the generalizability of the findings to other racial and ethnic groups. Future research should explore these associations in more diverse populations to account for potential genetic and lifestyle differences.

The study did not find significant associations between breast cancer risk and specific anti-diabetic medications, such as metformin or insulin. However, further investigation into the dosage, duration, and timing of medication use may yield additional insights into their potential roles in breast cancer risk.

In conclusion, the study conducted by  Dr. Rebecca E. Graff’s team provides valuable contributions to our understanding of the complex relationship between diabetes and breast cancer. While the overall risk of breast cancer does not appear to be significantly elevated in individuals with diabetes, the study highlights the importance of considering diabetes subtypes and temporal aspects when evaluating these associations. Additionally, the potential role of biological mechanisms, screening and detection bias, and the impact of anti-diabetic medications should be subjects of future research in this field. Ultimately, these findings underscore the need for continued investigation into the interplay between diabetes and breast cancer, which has significant implications for both public health and clinical practice.

Exploring the Link Between Diabetes and Breast Cancer Risk: Insights from a UK Biobank Study - Medicine Innovates

About the author

Rebecca E. Graff, ScD

Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, San Francisco, CA

I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Broadly speaking, my research interests reside in population-based cancer epidemiology. More specifically, my research at present focuses on: 1) discerning the shared genetic basis of seemingly distinct cancer types; 2) discerning the shared genetic basis of cancer and other chronic diseases; 3) leveraging genetic information to improve prostate-specific antigen screening; 4) determining the metabolomic basis of lethal prostate cancer; 5) examining the role of lifestyle factors in prostate cancer survivorship; and 6) examining the role of lifestyle factors in kidney cancer risk and survivorship.  


Xiong F, Wang J, Nierenberg JL, Van Blarigan EL, Kenfield SA, Chan JM, Schmajuk G, Huang CY, Graff RE. Diabetes mellitus and risk of breast cancer: a large-scale, prospective, population-based study. Br J Cancer. 2023 Sep;129(4):648-655. doi: 10.1038/s41416-023-02345-4.  

Go To Br J Cancer.