Health Team

Study: Hormone therapy increases risk of breast cancer

Posted December 19, 2008 5:33 p.m. EST
Updated December 19, 2008 6:32 p.m. EST

A new study shows that taking hormone therapy to reduce the effects of menopause also increases women's risk of breast cancer.

Research confirms that 61-year-old Phylis Smith's instincts and her doctors' recommendation not to treat hot flashes with hormones were correct. Breast cancer runs in Smith's family.

"It was an absolute no. No go," Smith said.

Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles found a direct link between hormone replacement therapy and a higher risk of breast cancer. Women who took a combination of estrogen and progesterone for more than five years were twice as likely to develop the disease.

"We're talking about increasing their risk by 200 percent," said Dr. Alison Estabrook, chief of breast surgery at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.

On the other hand, patients who stopped taking the hormones experienced an immediate decrease in cancer risk. Within two years, patients' personal risk of cancer was back to its original level.

By contrast, smokers who quit have to wait 10 to 15 years for their risk to come down to where it started.

"This is reversible," Estabrook said. "So if you take estrogen and progesterone for a few years, then you can stop them, and your risk will go back down."

Although results showed that short-term use of combined hormone treatments had little impact on breast-cancer risk, leading doctors believe that the study will alter how hormones are given.

"Doctors are more hesitant to prescribe them," Estabrook said.

Doctors urge women taking hormone replacement therapy to get mammograms and sonograms regularly.

Smith said she plans to practice that vigilance to protect her health during her golden years.

"It's your life, and you have to be your own advocate," she said.