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Tall women at greater risk for multiple cancers

Some cancer risk factors can be controlled, such as smoking status, your weight and how you eat. A new study finds a significant risk factor for cancer in women might be out of their hands: Their height.

Researchers looked at a pool of more than 144,000 women, and found postmenopausal women who are tall were at a higher risk for melanoma, multiple myeloma (plasma cell cancer) and cancers of the breast, colon, endometrium, kidney, ovary, rectum and thyroid.

The researchers looked at the Women's Health Initiative, a large, long-running study pool of women in which they are regularly examined and surveyed. Of the pool, researchers selected 20,928 postmenopausal women who were between 50 and 79 years of age and had been diagnosed with one or more invasive cancers during a 12-year follow-up period.

After ruling out other cancer risk factors like age, weight, smoking status, alcohol habits and whether the women underwent hormone therapy, the researchers calculated the effect height had on women's cancer risk. They found for about every four inches of height (10 centimeters), a woman's overall cancer risk increased by 13 percent.

Specifically, there was a 23 to 29 percent increased risk of developing cancers of the kidney, rectum, thyroid and blood for every additional four inches of height. For melanoma and cancers of the breast, ovary, endometrium and colon, there was a 13 percent and 17 percent higher chance of developing the diseases.

Previous studies have found tall women may be at greater risk for cancer, including a 2012 study that found for every two inches of height, a woman slightly increases her risk for ovarian cancer by 7 percent.

A 2011 paper that looked at 1.3 million women also found those who were tallest were at a heightened cancer risk.

The study did not look specifically for a cause of this effect, but study senior author Dr. Thomas Rohan, chair of the department of epidemiology and public health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, speculated to that two factors may be at play. One, it could be genetic factors, so whatever genes lead a person to be tall may in some way affect cancer risk. Two, it could be an environmental link. Different nutrition or caloric intake early in life that map help someone to become tall could in some way alter cancer risk.

He hopes the study prompts other researchers to look into these potential causes. His study, however, was not designed to find clinical recommendations a doctor can give a tall woman specifically to lower her risk.

"Just be happy that you're tall," joked Rohan.

But, in general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce cancer risk, he added.

The researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City say their study only looked at postmenopausal women, but height is likely linked to higher cancer risk for other women -- and possibly men.

"My guess is yes it would affect tall men," Rohan said. "Our hope is to pursue this (research) in other populations."

The study was published July 25 in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

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