The controversy over hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and its link to breast cancer risk is back in the news in a big way. This month the Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, published a new study on the long-term risks of synthetic HRT use during menopause. The buzz around the study claims that it shows women taking HRT have “twice the risk of breast cancer” than experts previously thought.
We have read the new meta study carefully and agree that its findings are very important to the whole debate about HRT. But the press coverage is not exactly right. We asked one of our physician experts, Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD, to explain what this study really means for women. Let’s hear from Dr. Stills…
I received a call from one of my patients as soon as the news about this study broke. She was worried — who wouldn’t be after reading about a doubled risk of breast cancer? — and wanted to know if she should stop taking the biodentical progesterone that has been giving her so much relief.
Frankly, I had been expecting this call. Virtually all media coverage on the Lancet study contained a very large and sloppy mistake: it didn’t bother to specify that the study’s findings pertained only to synthetic hormone replacement therapy. In the world of HRT, this distinction means everything.
So before we go any further into the other problematic aspects of the study, you need to understand up front that if you are taking bioidentical hormones, the findings of this study do not apply to you. As I reminded my patient, the difference between bioidentical hormones and synthetic hormones is like comparing apples to elephants!
What the study actually says is that the longer you take synthetic HRT, the more at risk you are for breast cancer. Researchers looked at different groups of women, and among other things compared women who had taken synthetic HRTfor varying numbers of years. According to the results, increased risk for breast cancer was seen during years 1 to 4 of use, and then this risk doubled during years 5 to 14. The risk persisted for a certain number of years following use.
These findings make complete sense to me because the longer you ingest any toxic substance, the more likely it is to harm you. Is that really a surprise to anyone?
We’ve known for a very long time just how bad synthetic HRT is for women. You may remember being shocked back in 2004 when the large-scale Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) revealed that synthetic HRT put women at serious risk of breast cancer, stroke and other life-threatening disorders. The study was a bombshell because, at the time, more than 10 million women were being prescribed some form of synthetic HRT, most commonly during menopause.
The forms of synthetic HRT studied in the WHI included medications such as conjugated equine estrogen (Premarin) and synthetic progestins. These synthetic medications are the same forms of HRT examined in the new Lancet study. If anything, what this shows is that we knew these synthetic hormones were bad in 2004, and now 15 years later, nothing has changed!
If you are suffering from menopause symptoms, I know that you might be feeling pulled in different directions right now. If you see a conventional doctor, you’ve probably gotten the “risk/reward” talk that having this effective form of relief for your symptoms is worth the risk synthetic HRT carries.
Here is what I tell my patients: these synthetic hormones have no place in your body. There are so many other ways to effectively rebalance your hormones — naturally and safely. I am talking about diet and lifestyle interventions, nutritional supplementation, exercise, and bioidentical hormones — which are not at all the same as synthetic hormones. You have so many options! Please note that it’s important to work with a physician with extensive training in the use of bioidentical hormones and who can appropriately monitor you.
In the UK, physician groups have already adjusted their prescription guidelines for HRT in light of this latest study. I wish we were so responsive here in the US. We need to keep talking about the real risks of synthetic HRT and the safer, effective alternatives available to women to deal with symptoms of hormonal imbalance, especially in menopause. That’s exactly what we’re doing at Women’s Health Network, and I am so glad to be part of the conversation.
We’ll be delving deeper into the Lancet study and all the issues surrounding HRT in the months ahead. But let me make one point now about the true value of the Lancet study. Since the WHI revelations in 2004, the pharmaceutical industry has been on a campaign to restore women’s confidence in synthetic HRT. The Lancet study should finally put that campaign to a well-deserved end.
Stay tuned for more!
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