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Tuesday, August 14, 2007 - Page updated at 03:34 PM

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Breast cancer rates fell with drop in hormone therapy, study says

Seattle Times health reporter

When reports linked a remarkable decline in nationwide breast-cancer cases to a drop in women taking menopausal hormones, skeptics said it could just be that it was actually a drop in mammograms that meant fewer cancers were being detected.

Not so, says a large national study released today.

Researchers from Seattle and three other locations around the country are reporting that their study of breast-cancer rates on more than 200,000 women — all of whom received regular mammograms — showed cancer rates fell significantly after American women began abandoning menopausal hormone therapy about seven years ago. The findings are to be published in Wednesday's Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The study is the first to include only women who were regularly screened with mammography, thus reducing the possibility that a drop in cancer rates could be the result of fewer screenings. It also adds to a growing body of research against hormone therapy.

"If you take away the hormones, your risk of breast cancer goes down," said Dr. Karla Kerlikowske, a physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and lead author of the study.

Timing analyzed

The study analyzed more than 600,000 mammography exams performed on 232,000 women ages 50 to 69 between 1997 and 2003. The women — from Washington, California, Vermont and New Hampshire — were part of the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium sponsored by the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Out of the group, 3,238 women were diagnosed with breast cancer within a year of a screening.

The study found a decrease in breast-cancer cases that coincided with the decline in women taking hormone pills to treat menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness and night sweats.

In 2000, menopausal hormone therapy began falling out of favor with mounting evidence that it was dangerous. Then in 2002, the landmark Women's Health Initiative study revealed that women who took Prempro, an estrogen-progestin pill, were more likely to develop breast cancer or to have a heart attack or strokes than women taking placebo. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of Americans on hormone therapy plummeted 34 percent.

Tuesday's study also buttresses previous findings that women who are weaned off hormone therapy might be able to largely undo the risks within two or three years, Kerlikowske said.

Most notably, incidents of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer — the type of tumor linked to estrogen-progestin therapy — fell by 13 percent each year from 2001 to 2003.

Not the end of hormones


The latest study, especially with its large sample size, should be one more argument on the risks of hormone therapy, said Dr. Julie Gralow, a breast oncologist with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Nonetheless, "it doesn't mean that nobody should be on hormone-replacement therapy," she said.

Women who suffer from severe menopausal symptoms, for instance, still can benefit from hormone therapy if the drugs are given in low doses for short periods, Gralow said.

Diana Buist, one of the study's co-authors and a scientific investigator at Seattle's Group Health Center for Health Studies, predicts that breast-cancer rates among the women in the study won't continue to fall because the women have already reaped the benefits of ceasing the hormone therapies.

And Buist cautions that women who quit taking hormone pills shouldn't also quit getting mammograms, particularly as they get older. A woman born in the United States today still has a 12.7 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.

And women now in their 60s are nearly three times more likely to get breast cancer than women in their 40s.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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