COMMENTS: Hormonal

Breast cancer made big news last December when all three networks covered a sharp decline in diagnoses that occurred in 2003, one year after post-menopausal women were advised to cease using estrogen as Hormone Replacement Therapy. Since estrogen is a fuel for cancers of the breast, there seemed to be a causal relationship between the two.

Now the New England Journal of Medicine has published data for 2004, which show a 9% consistent decline in diagnoses: 16,000 fewer cases nationwide. ABC's John McKenzie (subscription required) mentioned a couple of outstanding caveats to concluding definitively that HRT withdrawal was the cause: fewer women are using mammogram screenings so existing cancers may be undiagnosed; and other supplements, such as aspirin, calcium and vitamins, may have a preventive role.

On CBS, in-house physician Jon LaPook's explanation was a little confusing. He suggested that HRT may not cause cancer but instead estrogen may be the fuel that existing breast cancer uses to grow. But if that were the case, why would the number of diagnoses decline? Would it not just be that smaller tumors were found?

Anyway, last December, Tyndall Report (text link) complained about the positive coverage of this news: "Just because the glass is half full, journalists should not avoid reporting that it is half empty." We posed a set of unasked questions then that still do not have answers now. To repeat: How many post-menopausal women contracted breast cancer because they took HRT before 2002? How many of them died as a result? Why were doctors prescribing a potential killer? What made them think it was safe? What pharmaceutical companies benefited from pushing HRT? What other similar supplements are used nowadays with similar potential safety problems?


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