Male sex and the risk of childhood cancer: The mediating effect of birth defects

Erin L. Marcotte, Jeremy M. Schraw, Tania A. Desrosiers, Wendy N. Nembhard, Peter H. Langlois, Mark A. Canfield, Robert E. Meyer, Sharon E. Plon, Philip J. Lupo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: There is a persistent, unexplained disparity in sex ratio among childhood cancer cases, whereby males are more likely to develop most cancers. This male predominance is also seen for most birth defects, which are strongly associated with risk of childhood cancer. We conducted mediation analysis to estimate whether the increased risk of cancer among males is partially explained by birth defect status. Methods: We used a population-based birth cohort with linked data from birth certificates, birth defects registries, and cancer registries from Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas. We conducted counterfactual mediation analysis to estimate the natural direct and indirect effects of sex on cancer risk, modeling birth defect status as mediator. State; birth year; plurality; and maternal race and ethnicity, age, and education were considered confounders. We conducted separate analyses limited to cancers diagnosed younger than 1 year of age. Results: Our dataset included 10 181 074 children: 15 110 diagnosed with cancer, 539 567 diagnosed with birth defects, and 2124 co-occurring cases. Birth defect status mediated 38% of the association between sex and cancer overall. The proportion mediated varied by cancer type, including acute myeloid leukemia (93%), neuroblastoma (35%), and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (6%). Among children younger than 1 year of age at cancer diagnosis, the proportion mediated was substantially higher (82%). Conclusions: Our results suggest that birth defects mediate a statistically significant proportion of the relationship between sex and childhood cancer. The proportion mediated varied by cancer type and diagnosis age. These findings improve our understanding of the causal pathway underlying male sex as a risk factor for childhood cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberPKAA052
Pages (from-to)pkaa052
JournalJNCI cancer spectrum
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT RP140258, RP170071, RP160097, and RP160283), National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (CA125123), Arkansas Biosciences Institute, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, and the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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