Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hormones Increase Breast Cancer Risk

Did you read recently in the Arizona Republic that women who take estrogen and progestin after menopause not only increase their risk for breast cancer, but also face even a somewhat increased chance of dying from the disease? How does this differ from what we already knew? How great is the risk? It can be confusing to sort it all out, so here are the facts:

• Eight years ago a federally funded study called the Women’s Health Initiative revealed that the risks of heart disease and breast cancer outweighed the benefits of taking estrogen and progestin for relief from menopause symptoms.

• Although at the time researchers thought the risk of death from breast cancer was not any greater, the use of the hormones dropped almost 65% from 2002 to 2009. Still, some 40 million women were taking the hormone combination.

• As a result of the diminished hormone use, breast-cancer diagnoses started to drop.

• Last year researchers concluded that women who took the hormones were 70% more likely to die of lung cancer. Lung cancer and breast cancer are the two leading causes of cancer death in women.

• Now that researchers have 11 years of data from the study, they have determined that the tumors that result from the hormone combination are just as likely to be the more difficult to treat type of tumors, not the smaller, less-threatening ones they had thought eight years ago. This means the risk of dying from breast cancer is slightly higher.

• Still, this newly identified risk of death from breast cancer as a result of hormone use is low.

• Researchers recommend that women who take the hormone combination do so at the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time. There continues to be debate about whether five years is too long to be on the hormones.

• The use of estrogen alone, which women who have had hysterectomies take, does not carry the risks reported here.

There are many other risk factors for breast cancer, such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, a diet high in saturated fat, and genetics. Be sure to discuss your risks carefully with your physician so you can make the most informed choice about your health.

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