HRT: Another Reason to Avoid It.
Hey there, you with the hot flashes, night sweats, sleeplessness, and nasty moods—thinking about taking some hormones to ease the rocky path through menopause? It’s easy; just take a pill to replace that estrogen your ovaries aren’t making any more, and before you know it you’re back to your old (or is that younger?) self.
And before you know it, you’ve joined the survivor sisterhood—the ranks of women with breast cancer.
OK, your chances of getting breast cancer are still slim. At age 50, a typical age for starting to feel the onset of menopause, your chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is a measly 1 in 50. By age 60, it’s dropped to 1 in 23. Those are still good odds. But those are overall odds, for the mythical “average” woman. How do you compare to the average, when you’re assessing risk factors?
Are you overweight and under-active? Do you smoke, or drink a little too much? Did your grandmother have breast cancer? Suddenly, you’ve moved left of center, onto the riskier side of average. Now add those estrogen pills you’re taking, and you’ve upped your cancer risk even further—as much as 400%, for certain types of breast cancer. So you weigh the misery of menopause—the bottomless fatigue, the painful sex—against that ever-increasing risk… and still decide HRT is worth it.
Now, add to that the newly discovered fact that women taking an HRT combination of estrogen/progesterone experience significantly more abnormal mammograms, and undergo many more unnecessary biopsies, than women not doing HRT. Why? Because HRT increases breast density, and dense breasts make cancer screening via mammogram very tricky. On a mammogram, fatty breast tissue looks clear; dense breast tissue looks opaque; and tumors look opaque. Is it simple to spot a white tumor on a clear background of fatty breast tissue? Yes. Is looking for a white tumor in white dense breast tissue like looking for one particular tree in a forest? Yes. So do you want dense breasts? No. But they’re a potential side effect of HRT.
Dr. Rowan Chlebowski of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, reporting on his study in a recent interview with Reuters, noted that 1 in 10 women taking HRT drugs will experience an abnormal mammogram that doesn’t eventually result in cancer. And 1 in 25 will undergo a biopsy that comes back clear. That’s good news; those women don’t have cancer.
On the other hand, those same women go through those several days, or even a couple of weeks, of thinking they might have cancer. Of waking up with a sinking feeling, wondering if their breasts are hiding a tumor. And agonizing over what that would mean to them—to their spouse, children, parents, friends. “Do I have breast cancer? Will I lose a breast? Have chemo? Lose my hair? Lose my job?”
“Will I die?”
You know the routine; if you’re reading this, you’ve probably been there. It’s a searing experience, one that shakes you to the very foundation of your being. Would you wish it on your sister, your girlfriends?
If someone close to you is taking HRT, ask her if she’s considered stopping. Even short-term use brings with it increased breast cancer risk—and now, it seems, an increase in “false positive” mammograms, resulting in unnecessary biopsies. Urge her to re-examine her need for HRT; and if it’s a necessity, ask her to see if she can lower her dose. Coax her; nag her; get under her skin. YOU know that breast cancer isn’t worth it. Let her know, too.