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The objective of this study is to explore the effect of lifestyle on the risk of invasive breast carcinoma in women aged 50–65 years. A case–control study using a questionnaire and a semi-structured interview. Cases (n = 67) and controls (n = 134) were closely matched on known risk factors for breast cancer including age, family history, age at menarche, parity, age at first birth and menopausal status. Controls were chosen from a pool of 5600 women who attended for breast screening and filled in a questionnaire giving details to allow matching with cases. The study took place at the North Lancashire Breast Screening Service. Women were aged 50–65 years and presented with breast cancer or attended for breast screening.Women with breast carcinoma were more likely to report physical trauma to the breast in the previous 5 years than were the controls (odds ratio (OR) 3.3, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.3–10.8, P < 0.0001). There were no significant differences in a wide range of other lifestyle indicators including factors relevant to social class, education, residence, smoking and alcohol consumption. In conclusion, recall bias is an unlikely explanation for these results in view of the nature and severity of physical trauma. Models of epithelial cell generation indicate that a causal link between physical trauma and cancer is plausible. A latent interval between cancer onset and presentation of under 5 years is also plausible. The most likely explanation of the findings is that physical trauma can cause breast cancer.