Lower breast cancer rates linked to fewer hormone pills
Breast cancer rates in the United States dropped in 2003, and experts said they believe the significant decrease is because many women stopped taking hormone pills.
New federal cancer statistics showed a 7.2 percent decline in breast cancer cases in 2003 after an federal study linked menopause hormones to an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.
Doctors estimate that half the women who were taking estrogen and progestin pills stopped after July 2002, when the federal Women’s Health Initiative study was discontinued because women taking hormones suffered more detrimental effects than those who benefited from the therapy. Researchers presented the new data Dec. 14 at a breast cancer conference in Texas.
In the 1950s and ’60s people thought they could delay aging with the use of hormone pills, said Dr. Laurence Heifetz of Sierra Nevada Oncology center at Tahoe Forest Hospital. Fast-forward several decades, Heifetz said, and now because of further knowledge “the breast cancer world has become very sophisticated.”
Known as hormone replacement therapy, the estrogen and progestin pills are prescribed to relieve menopausal symptoms and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
“Hormone replacement therapy is almost exclusive in the world of women in their 50s and 60s,” said Heifetz, who did not attend the Texas breast cancer conference.
Millions of women stopped taking the pills in 2003 after learning of the connection between the hormones and a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
In a Nov. 20 article published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology, a 2002 study revealed a noticeable number of Kaiser Permanente patients in the Northern California region stopped taking hormone pills, Heifetz said. There was a “big question mark in Marin County where everyone’s rich and health-conscious.” The breast cancer rate in Marin County used to be “sky high” and now it has decreased, he said.
“You can’t prove the hormones did it but you sure can build a good case,” Heifetz said.
Why then, do doctors think the breast cancer decrease is tied to hormones?
Experts say the discontinuation of hormone pills caused small cancerous tumors that had been growing to stop or shrink, making them undetectable on mammograms.
Also, the number of breast cancer cases decreased the most among women 50 and older with tumors whose growth is fueled by estrogen.
“The hypothesis is entirely plausible, that the discontinuation of hormone replacement therapy could be having an effect,” said Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society.
While sometimes hormone pills are “very necessary,” Heifetz said alternative prescriptions are available. And with the knowledge of the connection to breast cancer, “doctors are judicious about patients placed on hormones,” Heifetz said.
” The Associated Press contributed to this report
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