If ever there were a flashing red sign signaling postmenopausal women to get off HRT, this is one. The medical community is shocked and thrilled by new data showing that breast-cancer rates plummeted an unexpected 7 percent in 2003.
The only plausible explanation for this decline is that millions of women on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) drugs abruptly stopped taking them the year before.
In July 2002, one part of the federal Women's Health Initiative study was quickly discontinued after researchers discovered more breast cancers and heart problems occurring among women taking estrogen-progestin pills. Does this pair of findings indicate an ironclad link? No, but cancer researcher Peter Ravdin told the Los Angeles Times: "Such a rapid effect is most consistent with the idea that cancers that were already there ... were actually being stopped in their growth to the point where they would not be detected."
Still there are the apologists. There's big money in Premarin and other HRT prescriptions. IMS Health, which tracks drug sales, reports that some 22 million women were taking HRT in 2002. But the number fell to 12.7 million by the end of 2003. The Detroit Free Press queried doctors in Michigan, whose responses ranged from the "we'd better take note" line of thinking to laissez-faire.
"My concern is that these statistics bounce around from year to year," said Ronald Strickler, chief of women's health services at the Henry Ford Health System. A year of statistics isn't enough to gauge what's happening, he said.
It would be for me!