Menopausal Hormone Replacement Therapy Increases Cancer Risk

Recent scientific studies performed by the Women's Health Initiative Hormone Program confirm what doctors have suspected for years — menopausal-aged women taking estrogen-based hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are at a higher risk for developing certain types of cancers than women not receiving supplemental hormones. In fact, women receiving either estrogen replacement therapy or a therapy that is a combination of estrogen and progestin were at a higher risk of developing cancers affecting the uterus, breast and ovaries. Those same hormone therapies also increased women's chances of dying from lung cancer (though they did not noticeably increase the likelihood that a woman would develop lung cancer).

What Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

During menopause, a woman's hormone production slows dramatically, leading to a number of side effects on the body, ranging from hot flashes and night sweats to an increased risk of osteoporosis. HRT is designed to help women through the transition of menopause and to combat the invasive effects that go along with "the change" by replacing dwindling levels of chemical compounds like estrogen and progestin in an effort to regulate body systems. It can be given in several different ways, including pills, patches, rings and topical creams.

Scientists discovered years ago that supplementing a woman's naturally occurring hormones could aid the transition and lessen the impact menopause has upon the body. It is only recently, however, that doctors and patients alike began to be concerned about a link between HRT and an increased risk of certain types of cancers and some other conditions (like heart disease and dementia). A broad-spectrum research study performed by the Women's Health Initiative Hormone Program — sponsored jointly by the National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute — has proven a causal link between several serious illnesses and the administration of long-term HRT.

How Does HRT Affect The Patient's Risk For Disease?

The Women's Health Institute HRT studies involved testing subjects taking combined estrogen and progestin supplements as well as those just taking estrogen-based therapies. Not surprisingly, the risks associated with those two different therapies varied. Women being treated with combination HRT (specifically the drug Prempro, which the study focused on) had a statistically significantly higher risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • Breast cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Stroke
  • Blood clots
  • Dementia
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Alzheimer's disease

Combined HRT more than doubled the chances of dementia (or a related incapacitating disease like Alzheimer's) in women over the age of 65 when compared to similarly situated women not taking supplemental hormones. Of particular concern to oncologists — especially given that breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death for women and the average American woman has a lifetime 1 in 8 (roughly 12-13 percent) chance of developing breast cancer — is not only that combined HRT raises the risk of cancer, cancerous growths seen in women who have received long-term HRT are often larger and more difficult to treat.

On the other hand, though, combined estrogen/progestin HRT did lower the risk of colorectal cancers and potentially life-threatening hip fractures. The data collecting process of the Women's Health Institute study was cut short, however, when supervising physicians declared that the risks to the women taking HRT outweighed the benefits offered by the treatment.

The Women's Health Institute also studied the effects of estrogen-only HRT (specifically the brand name Premarin) with a large-sample study. Interestingly, supplemental estrogen alone did not significantly increase cancer risks among study participants, but it did result in a higher-than-expected number of blood clots and strokes as well as an increased chance of becoming incontinent. Other studies done over the years have proven a causal link between even estrogen-only HRT and a higher chance of developing cancer.

HRT And You

Only a qualified physician who is intimately familiar with your unique health history can decide if HRT is right for you. If, however, you have taken (or are taking) either combined or estrogen-only HRT and have now developed breast cancer, uterine/endometrial cancer, heart disease or a clot-related condition like a stroke, it is time for a frank discussion with your doctor to discuss your health. It may also be possible for you to seek compensation from the manufacturer or distributor of the HRT that resulted in your medical condition, so it is also time to consult a skilled personal injury attorney in your area to see if you have a viable cause of action.