Breast Cancer and Synthetic Hormones
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Taking menopause hormones for five years doubles the risk for breast cancer, according to a new analysis of a big federal study that reveals the most dramatic evidence yet of the dangers of these still-popular pills.
Even women who took estrogen and progestin pills for as little as a couple of years had a greater chance of
getting cancer. And when they stopped taking them, their odds quickly improved, returning to a normal risk level roughly two years after quitting.
Collectively, these new findings are likely to end any doubt that the risks outweigh the benefits for most women.
It is clear that breast cancer rates plunged in recent years mainly because millions of women quit hormone therapy and fewer newly menopausal women started on it, said the study's leader, Dr. Rowan Chlebowski of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"It's an excellent message for women: You can still diminish risk (by quitting), even if you've been on hormones for a long time," said Dr. Claudine Isaacs of Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. "It's not like smoking where you have to wait 10 or 15 years for the risk to come down."
Study results were given Saturday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
They are from the Women's Health Initiative, which tested estrogen and progestin pills that doctors long believed would prevent heart disease, bone loss and many other problems in women after menopause. The main part of the study was stopped in 2002 when researchers saw surprisingly higher risks of heart problems and breast cancer in hormone users.
Since then, experts have debated whether these risks apply to women who start on hormones when they enter menopause, usually in their 50s, and take them for shorter periods of time. Most of the women in the federal study were in their 60s and well past menopause.
So the advice has been to use hormones only if symptoms like hot flashes are severe, and at the lowest dose and shortest time possible. The new study sharpens that message, Chlebowski said.
"It does change the balance" on whether to start on treatment at all, he said.
Even so, most women will not get breast cancer by taking the pills short-term. The increased cancer risk from a couple of years of hormone use translates to a few extra cases of breast cancer a year for every 1,000 women on hormones. This risk accumulates with each year of use, though.
The Women's Health Initiative study had two parts. In one, 16,608 women closely matched for age, weight and other health factors
were randomly assigned to take either Wyeth Pharmaceuticals' Prempro — estrogen and progestin — or dummy pills.
This part was halted when researchers saw a 26 percent higher risk of breast cancer in those on Prempro.
But that was an average over the 5 1/2 years women were on the pills. For the new study, researchers tracked 15,387 of these women through July 2005, and plotted breast cancer cases as they occurred over time.
They saw a clear trend: Risk rose with the start of use, peaked when the study ended and fell as nearly all hormone users stopped taking their pills. At the peak, the breast cancer risk for pill takers was twice that of the others.
Helen Pensanti M.D.
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