Breast Cancer Hormone Therapy: What Is It And Who Needs It?
Breast Cancer Risk and Hormone Therapy
Both birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy increase breast cancer risk. Learn if their respective risks outweigh their benefits.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Breast cancer risk rises in relation to the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone because some types of breast cancer are "sensitive" to these hormones and use them to thrive, grow, and spread.
Over the course of a lifetime, many factors impact hormone production and hormone levels and, ultimately, your breast cancer risk. Pregnancy, your age when menstruation and menopause begin, and taking hormone medications all affect a woman's natural hormone levels.
These make a difference because the risk of breast cancer goes up the longer that female hormones circulate through the body. Specifically, this means that starting to menstruate at a young age or not going through menopause until a late age seems to increase breast cancer risk.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a type of treatment that may be given to some women to help treat the unpleasant side effects of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Estrogen-only hormone therapy is most common in women who have had a hysterectomy, while combination estrogen and progestin (synthetic progesterone) therapy is generally given to women who still have their reproductive organs. Hormone therapy for post-menopausal women can also help to prevent osteoporosis, a serious condition in which the bones become thin, weak, and break easily.
But there's a definite downside to postmenopausal hormone therapy — studies show that combination HRT increases breast cancer risk. For each year that a woman takes combination hormone replacement therapy, her risk of developing breast cancer increases by as much as 6 percent. One large study also found that women on HRT were at a higher risk of having more advanced forms of breast cancer when the breast cancer was first diagnosed. Estrogen replacement therapy without progesterone has been found to be a smaller risk factor for breast cancer than combined therapy, but it raises the risk for endometrial cancer in women who still have their uterus.
Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, are a popular form of birth control. They're very effective, easy to use, and generally don't cause a lot of side effects. Oral contraceptives are hormones — either estrogen-only or estrogen and progesterone — that prevent ovulation, thereby preventing pregnancy.
Many large studies have been performed to evaluate the effect of oral contraceptives on women's breast cancer risk. And although results were not completely consistent across all studies, several concluded that women who take oral contraceptives are more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not and have not taken them.
Research has also found that if women stop taking oral contraceptives, their breast cancer risk declines over a period of years. About 10 years after you stop taking birth control pills, your breast cancer risk returns to your baseline risk level.
Should You Take Hormone Therapy Drugs?
The choice to use oral contraceptives during your reproductive years or hormone therapy during or after menopause is a personal and individual choice that you should make based on discussions with your doctor.
Video: Making Sense of Hormone Replacement Therapy & Breast Cancer Risk
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