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Study: Stopping hormones drops breast cancer risk

CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It is a crucial and complex issue for women who suffer from menopausal symptoms: Is hormone-replacement therapy too risky? CNN anchor Carol Costello spoke with medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen about questions surrounding the treatment.

COHEN: It's important that women understand what doctors are learning in these studies (by the National Institutes of Health.) This (new) study answers the question: What happens when you go off of the combined hormone treatments that seem to be causing so many problems? Last summer, a study said (that being) on these medicines increases the risk that you're going to get heart disease and cancer. However, what about when you go off of (the therapy) -- is the damage done, or are you OK?

Well, the answer, according to this study (published in the December issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology) is that, in fact, your risk goes back down to normal. In other words, it's OK. While you're on the medicine, your risk of getting breast cancer or heart disease is up, but then when you go off of it, your risk of at least the breast cancer part of that goes back down to normal.

So this is good news for women worrying, "I was on these medicines for several years, I wonder if I did long-lasting damage?" The answer, according to this study, is that you didn't.

COSTELLO: This does help women, this change?

COHEN: Right. This study is good news for women who were wondering (if past use) ... might be doing ... residual damage. The answer, according to this study, is no, you're OK. Once you go off of the medicine, you are no longer at that increased risk for breast cancer.

COSTELLO: But is this the final word, or are we going to hear something entirely different a couple of weeks from now?

COHEN: That is always the concern. And you know what? It is never the final word. There are always more studies to come out, and that's why it's so important to talk to your doctor, to think about what we know now. ... Your only choice is to make the decision based on the information that we have now.

COSTELLO: Should I ask you if there is a bottom line, and what exactly women are supposed to do?

COHEN: Well, there actually is a bottom line. The bottom line is: How bad are your menopause symptoms? If you feel so terrible with the hot flashes and all of the other symptoms of menopause that you can't sleep at night, that you can't go to work, well, you may decide, along with your doctor, that it's worth taking the risk (of hormone replacement therapy.)

There is an increased risk of breast cancer. It's not gigantic. If you put 10,000 people on these hormones, over the course of the year, eight women would get breast cancer because of the hormones. In other words, eight out of 10,000 would get breast cancer out of the hormones.

Some people say, "It's too big of a risk, I don't want to do that." Other women say "It's worth the risk for me because I feel so awful, it's worth the risk." Others might decide to go with alternative remedies. It's everybody's choice.

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