According to an article recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the use of estrogen alone for 10 years or longer increases the risk of breast cancer.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often prescribed for women during menopause. Menopause is a natural phase of a woman’s lifecycle during which the ovaries produce significantly less estrogen, ovulation ceases, and menstruation ends.

For many women, menopause has uncomfortable side effects; these include hot flashes, sleep disturbances, depression, mood swings, and anxiety. Additionally, menopause may also be accompanied by increased urinary tract infections, incontinence, vaginal discomfort due to a lack of estrogen-based lubrication, and decreased bone density.

HRT has been effectively used to control these side effects and is widely prescribed for women experiencing these unpleasant symptoms of menopause. Recent results from several clinical studies have demonstrated a correlation between the use of hormone therapy and the development of breast cancer, as well as an increase in death caused by breast cancer. However, since results from other studies have not been consistent with these findings, researchers continue to evaluate this association.

HRT can contain estrogen alone, progesterone alone, or a combination of the two hormones. Research continues to investigate different outcomes of specific combinations or single-agent HRT and their duration of use.

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Researchers from Harvard University recently evaluated the possible associations between long-term use of estrogen-only HRT among postmenopausal women involved in the Nurses’ Health Study. The research included 28,835 postmenopausal women who had a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus); they reported their use of HRT. Overall, women who had taken estrogen alone for long-term use had an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Women who had taken estrogen alone for 10 years or less did not have an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Women taking estrogen for 15-20 years had an 18% increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Women taking estrogen for 20 or more years had a 42% increased risk of developing breast cancer.

The researchers concluded that long-term use of estrogen only increases the risk of developing breast cancer in women. Individuals taking estrogen to minimize menopausal symptoms or for osteoporosis should discuss their individual risks and benefits of this treatment with their physician.

Reference: Chen W, Manson J, Hankinson S, et al. Unopposed Estrogen Therapy and the Risk of Invasive Breast Cancer. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2006; 166:1027-1032.

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