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What women on HRT need to know

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by Cancer Research UK | News

19 September 2002

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The long term effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy significantly increase the risk of breast cancer and stroke according to Cancer Research UK scientists in a report1 published today.

Scientists undertook a comprehensive review of the incidence of seven major, life threatening conditions from four major randomised trials of HRT following the recent results from the Women’s Health Initiative in America.

The review, which included information on 20,000 postmenopausal women who had taken HRT for about five years, has established that there is a significant increase in the risks of breast cancer, stroke and blood clot on the lung.

Professor Valerie Beral, who led the review, also found that overall there was a significant reduction in bowel cancer and hip fractures in the women taking HRT.

On balance, evidence from the trials shows that a woman is more likely to contract a life threatening disease than to be protected against one.

The review estimates that among healthy women using HRT over a five year period, there would be a total of six extra cases of either breast cancer, stroke or clot on the lung (pulmonary embolism) among every 1000 HRT users aged between 50-59. The number doubles to 12 per 1000 HRT users aged 60-69.

The corresponding reduction in the number of expected cases of bowel cancer or hip fracture is estimated at 1.7 per 1000 HRT users aged 50-59 and 5.5 per 1000 HRT users aged between 60-69.

The review also found there was no significant change in the risks of endometrial cancer or coronary heart disease.

Prof. Valerie Beral, of Cancer Research UK’s Epidemiology Unit at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, says: “These estimates provide a rough guide to the likely overall change in incidence of these conditions over a five year period for typically healthy women in western countries who use HRT. Each woman may, understandably, give different weight to the importance of each condition, as well as to the relief of menopausal symptoms with HRT. The issues are different for every woman.”

Dr Gillian Reeves, a researcher on the review, says: “Women need to be aware of the new information we are learning about long term effects of HRT. There are a variety of reasons why women take HRT. Each individual should weigh up the pros and cons of HRT with regard to their own particular circumstances and after discussion with their doctor.”

Three of the randomised controlled trials reviewed had studied the effects of combined oestrogen and progestagen HRT and one had studied oestrogen only. The findings for each of the seven conditions were similar in all trials and applied to women with varying background risks of the disease and personal characteristics, including different ages, ethnic groups, disease histories and users of various medications.

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Results of randomised controlled trials are essential in providing a reliable guide to the long term effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy for postmenopausal women. But there are many outstanding questions about the effects of HRT and further studies are already underway to understand more about how it affects women over long periods of time. Judicious data analysis and accurate interpretation of results will continue to be essential.”


  1. The Lancet: 360; pp.942-44