The sharp decline in the rate of new breast cancer cases in 2003 may be related to a national decline in the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), according to a new report in the April 19, 2007, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The report used data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health.
Age-adjusted breast cancer incidence rates in women in the United States fell 6.7 percent in 2003. During this same period, prescriptions for HRT declined rapidly, following highly-publicized reports from the Women?s Health Initiative (WHI) study that showed an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and urinary incontinence among postmenopausal women who were using hormone replacement therapy that included both estrogen and progestin. The two most commonly prescribed forms of HRT in the United States, Premarin? and PremproTM, had their steepest declines starting in 2002-2003 — from 61 million prescriptions written in 2001 to 21 million in 2004.
Led by senior investigator Donald Berry, PhD., of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, the research team showed that the decrease in breast cancer incidence began in mid-2002 and leveled off after 2003. Comparing rates from 2001 and 2004 showed a decrease in annual age-adjusted incidence of 8.6 percent. The decrease occurred only in women over the age of 50 and was more evident in women with cancers that were estrogen receptor (ER) positive — tumors that need estrogen in order to grow and multiply. The speed at which breast cancer rates declined after the WHI announcements may indicate that extremely small ER-positive breast cancers may have stopped progressing, or even regressed, after HRT was stopped.
“Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in the United States, and we have made great strides in its treatment,” said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. “Still, we don?t know all the causes of breast cancer, and breast cancer rates had been increasing for two decades up to 2002. Finding the simple ways, such as limiting HRT use to decrease breast cancer risk, is a step forward.”
Preliminary findings of this report were presented at the 29th annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2006. Data from 2004, which was of great interest to those present for the meeting, were not available at that time. This report now includes the data from 2004, which show a leveling-off of breast cancer incidence from 2003 to 2004. This observation, combined with a stabilization of HRT use in 2004, further strengthens the association between breast cancer incidence and use of HRT.
“The decision about use of HRT is complex,” says study researcher Christine Berg, M.D., from the National Cancer Institute. “While HRT provides relief from the symptoms of menopause, it may also increase one?s risk of breast cancer. It is important that women meet with their doctor to discuss what decision is right for them, particularly if they are at high risk for breast cancer.”