The most exciting part of conducting a research study is when you start to get data. This is when you can begin thinking big and forming hypotheses to fit what you have found. And this is precisely what Dr. Dixie Mills, our Foundation’s medical director, our students, and I have been doing this summer!

As you may recall, in 2007 we received a grant from the Avon Foundation to study the physiology of the resting breast—the first-ever study to look at what happens in the non-breastfeeding breast. (You’d think that by the 21st century we’d already have a full understanding of the basic anatomy and physiology of the breast—but we don’t.)

We know quite a bit about the breastfeeding breast. The breast is magical—it has the ability to make blood into milk. And as any woman who has breastfed knows, if you drink a glass a glass of wine, your baby will get sleepy, whereas if you eat spicy food they will be up all night. And it’s not just what a woman eats that gets into her breast milk. Studies have found pesticides, nicotine, and other chemicals in a mother’s breast milk.

Previous studies have found that some substances, like caffeine, get into the breast milk almost immediately, while others, like the heartburn medication cimetidine (Tagamet), becomes concentrated in the milk. But what about when a woman is not breastfeeding? Do these substances also get passed into a woman’s breast fluid?

To answer this question, we decided to see how long it takes caffeine and Tagamet to get into the breast fluid of women who are not breastfeeding. So far, we have studied ten women; some were premenopausal, some were postmenopausal, and some had been pregnant. The women were given both NoDoz (which contains a standard dose of caffeine) and Tagamet. We took blood and breast fluid samples from each woman over the next twelve hours.

What we have found so far is very interesting. (And since no one has ever done this type of research before, what we have found is, for us, just like finding water on Mars!) First of all, the Tagamet never gets into the fluid at all!  Secondly, NoDoz (caffeine) takes from 6-12 hours to get into the fluid. Why does it take so long, when it gets into the breastfeeding breast almost immediately?  That’s something we’re pondering right now.

We also found that whether a woman had been pregnant had no impact on how long it took for the caffeine to get into the breast fluid. Another interesting finding: all of the postmenopausal women had caffeine in their fluid, but none of the premenopausal women did.

It’s possible that it takes the caffeine longer to get into the fluid of premenopausal women (we just convinced one heroic woman to stay here for 14 hours to find out). Also, menopause is an arbitrary distinction. We could find that it is age or breast density that is responsible for the differences we are seeing. Or, there may be another factor we have yet to consider. These are things that we will think about as the study continues.

Why does what we learn matter? If we discover that carcinogens get into and stay in the breast fluid for some time, it could mean that the epithelial cells that line the breast ducts are, basically, taking a bath in these carcinogens on a regular basis. This, in turn, could mean that the breast fluid plays a role in turning a normal epithelial cell into a cancerous one. And if this is, indeed, the case, we can then ask: Can it be changed? Are there good things that could also get into the breast fluid? Could we “wash out” the ducts to keep cancer from occurring?

As you can see, we are at the beginning of an amazing research adventure. Stay tuned, as we will continue to keep you abreast of our adventure into the resting breast!

PS—Interested in taking part in a research study? Learn more about other research studies we are conducting at the Foundation here.

PPS—Interested in supporting our work? Donate here.

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