Study Published in NEJM Reaffirms Link Between Breast Cancer and Hormone Treatment

April 19, 2007

Here’s another front-page story from today’s Washington Post — this one on evidence reaffirming that the decline in the number of breast cancer cases is linked to the drop-off in hormone use by menopausal women. The drop off began in 2002, when the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term federal study, found that hormone treatment increased the risk of heart disease, strokes and breast cancer.

“At first I didn’t believe it — it was so astounding,” Donald A. Berry of the University of Texas, who led the analysis, told the Post. “But it really looks like it’s a story that holds together.”

The new analysis was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine and is available online. From the Washington Post:

The researchers estimated from the findings that about 16,000 fewer cases of breast cancer are being diagnosed each year because of the decrease in hormone use, a stunning reversal of a decades-long increase in cases. […]

Others said the findings underscore the danger of drug therapies becoming widely used before they have been thoroughly tested.

“An awful lot of breast cancer was caused by doctors’ prescriptions,” said Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “That’s a very serious and sobering thought.”

Norton and others said the findings should encourage more women to stop hormone use altogether or to continue at the lowest dose and for the shortest time necessary.

The findings come as another study involving nearly 1 million British women found that hormones also increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

“These data add to the message that we really should be discouraging women from initiating menopausal hormones,” said Marcia L. Stefanick of Stanford University. “We need to stop underplaying those risks. They are very real.”

The UK study was published in The Lancet. It, too, is available online, though registration is required.

Plus: On NPR’s “All Things Considered” today, Michele Norris spoke with Deborah Grady, M.D., a professor of medicine at UCSF, about the risks and possible alternatives to hormone treatment.

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