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A new study has shown that women using combined HRT therapy (oestrogen and progesterone together) are almost 3 times more likely to develop breast cancer than those not using it. This investigation, published in the British Journal of Cancer, studied 39,000 women over a period of 6 years, and during that time nearly 2% of women using combined HRT developed breast cancer and were 2.7 times more likely to develop breast cancer than those not using it.

HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is used by many women (around 1 in 10) during the menopause to counteract symptoms brought on by declining hormone levels. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include hot flashes, night sweats, elevated heart rate, insomnia, irritability, depression, anxiety, urinary issues, vaginal dryness and reduced libido. Whilst effective, it has been a controversial treatment since 2002, when studies found an association between the use of HRT and the risk of breast cancer.

Based on the results of this most recent study, researchers now think that previous studies actually underestimated the risk, for a number of reasons, including lack of follow up. Previous studies did not account for those who stopped taking HRT part way through the study and often inferred menopausal age.   

The good news is that once women had stopped taking combined HRT for a year or two, there was no significant increase in risk, and those taking an oestrogen-only HRT had no significant increase in risk either.

It’s very important that women understand the risks and benefits of taking combined HRT and discuss both with their GP. For those who want to investigate natural alternatives to help support symptoms, soy isoflavones and hops are excellent options to consider. Menopausal symptoms are rarely experienced by those consuming a traditional Asian diet, with a high proportion of soy foods. Soy isoflavones are best described as phyto-oestrogens, exerting weak oestrogen-like effects on tissues of the body. It’s thought that the weak oestrogen effect can help to manage symptoms associated with a decline in oestrogen levels, but as they are only 1/400th to 1/1000th of the potency of HRT, they are not associated with the same side effects. Similarly, a natural compound in the hops plant called 8-prenylnaringenin has also been found to have a weak oestrogenic effect, making hops as valuable for symptom support as soy isoflavones, and a combination of the two can be incredibly useful.

Jones, M.E. et al (2016) Menopausal hormone therapy and breast cancer: what is the true size of the increased risk? British Journal of Cancer. Advanced online publication http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/bjc2016231a.html

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