HRT – is it safe?

Yesterday I woke to the headlines ‘British study finds risk of breast cancer nearly tripled by combined HRT’. Oh my goodness, is this true?

A close up of a post menopausal middle aged woman sticking a hormone replacement patch to the outside of her upper thigh.The headline got my attention and 100s of 1000s of women everywhere at a guess.

If you take it, what do you do? Stop taking it? Go back to the GP who prescribed it and check? If you’re thinking of taking it do you change your mind?

It’s another big blow for many women struggling with menopausal symptoms. And it is a big thing. At Henpicked we’ve had women tell us that HRT was a life-saver for them – literally.

And I get that. If you’ve been at the point where you can’t cope at work – even thinking about giving up work – it’s a big thing. If your relationships are struggling, friends, family and partners alongside you feeling the effects – it’s a big thing. Life is too short to put up with menopausal symptoms when you can do something about them.

Don’t get me wrong. Many women sail through menopause and some say they feel better afterwards. But if you don’t and you need help, for many HRT is the answer.

Until you see a headline like this and are forced to think again about the risks, whether you’re at risk, whether it’s worth it, whether you have to find a different way of coping or getting your life back.

So what now?

I watched the tweets and the story unfold during the day. Still not really that much wiser, I waited for the 6 o’clock news. And there it was, the story relegated in importance. Olympics first – understandable hero welcome – but then it wasn’t the next news story, or the next.

Confused. Yesterday I woke to alarming news that women taking HRT are at much higher risk of breast cancer than they’d thought before and by the end of the day the story was behind badger culling!

We asked one of our menopause experts, Dr Louise Newson, who told us:

‘The findings of a recent study published in the British Journal of Cancer suggest that the increased risk of breast cancer among women taking the more common combined HRT in the longer term is slightly higher than previous studies have shown; their results showed closer to a threefold increase rather than a doubling for those taking HRT for over 15 years.

The results of this study are similar with other studies in that women who are only taking oestrogen (so those women who’ve had a hysterectomy) do not have an increased risk of breast cancer.

It appears to be the type of progestogen that is important regarding this increased risk of breast cancer and the newer type of progestogen, micronised progesterone, was not mentioned in this study.

It is so important for women to understand that there are numerous other risk factors for developing breast cancer. These include being overweight or obese, being older, drinking alcohol and smoking. The risk of developing breast cancer is actually greater if you are overweight than if you take HRT.

Any increased risk of breast cancer with taking HRT is reversed on stopping HRT.’

So, is HRT safe?

“For the vast majority of women under the age of 60 years, HRT provides more benefits than risks. HRT has been shown in numerous studies to reduce a woman’s risk of developing osteoporosis and also heart disease.

Many of my patients could not work or have a decent quality of life if they did not take HRT.

Each woman has different risks for breast cancer and other diseases and for this reason it is really important that individual risks of taking HRT are discussed with your GP or menopause doctor. There are many different types of HRT and they are all associated with different risks. Prescribing HRT is not a “one-size-fits-all” method.

Although this increased risk sounds high, it is still very small and all the other benefits of taking HRT need to be considered too.”

If you’re taking HRT and you’re concerned by anything you’ve read, talk to your GP or menopause expert.

Didn’t this happen before?

headline from NHS websiteThe last time a HRT headline spiraled out of control was in 2002, the research was later discredited but to this day, years later, many women still have the belief that HRT is too great a risk.

For some it is. But for the last 14 years many women have missed out on the benefits it could have given them – for managing menopausal symptoms, getting their life back and providing protection for things like their bones and heart.

Time to break the taboo

What we do need is good quality, plain English, straightforward information – the facts. And to talk about menopause more, whether that’s with experts or with our friends and family. All women will go through it, we’ll all experience it differently but we can help ourselves and others if we talk about it. So why don’t we? It’s time to start, expel the myths and break the taboo.

We also need to know that our GPs are equipped with up-to-date information. The NICE guidelines issued last November have helped (though not a great bedtime read) and some women tell us that their GPs have been absolutely superb. Others have been sent away, left feeling unheard.

Let us know what you think of the headlines and talking about menopause more?

Deborah Garlick

About Deborah Garlick

I'm the founder of Henpicked. I love reading the wonderful stories and articles women send us - I read every one. I've learnt so much and hope others enjoy them too. I believe life's about being happy and that we're here to help one another. And that women are far wiser than they often realise, so let's stop putting ourselves down.

  • Imogen Jamieson

    So happy to read your sensible words Deborah. Its hard not to be influenced by inflammatory headlines and your article has given me pause and greater perspective with its common sense advice.

    • Deborah Garlick

      Thank you Imogen. Really do wish there was a pause earlier on in the process. Once these types of headline are dropped out there, without enough facts or context, it can stick in your mind. Possibly even women not needing to think about it yet, may be negatively influenced. And goodness knows what you think when you hear about it and you’re just about to apply your patch or cream. But the responsibility is still ours – it’s up to us to be informed and make the best decision for us. That’s where I think we can help each other by talking.

      • Imogen Jamieson

        I entirely agree. The strength of women talking and sharing is a magnificent thing. Powerful and positive AND helps to dispel the myths.

  • Thought provoking article. I have been a complementary medicine practitioner for almost 25 years and will counsel a natural route when it comes to menopausal symptoms. However, if a woman’s quality of life is being adversely affected by her symptoms and the natural route is not working, I would advise that she discusses the symptoms with her GP and the different treatments available, including HRT.

    I managed to get through my menopause without too much drama. The night sweats and hot flushes were inconvenient, and the mood swings confusing for my husband and family. I tried natural methods including bio-identical hormone creams, but nothing really helped. I didn’t want to go on HRT. I managed my symptoms quite well through diet, not drinking alcohol (alcohol made the symptoms so much worse), exercise and meditation.