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Life changes

By Helen Lobato - posted Wednesday, 18 June 2008


On June 2, 2008, The Medical Journal of Australia reported that the reduction in breast cancer among women over 50 years is mostly due to the decrease in the use of HRT, or hormone replacement therapy.

This new Australian research discovered that there were 600 less cases of breast cancer a year now that fewer women are using HRT. The use of HRT had reduced by 40 per cent and followed the release of results of the Women’s Health Initiative trial in 2002 which found that HRT caused increases in breast cancer, heart attacks, blood clots and strokes.

So how have we arrived at this point where the decrease in the use of a drug for menopausal symptoms has resulted in less breast cancer cases as has been shown in this new research? To answer this we need to look at the history of HRT and before that the spreading of propaganda that led women and their doctors to regard menopause as a disease state.

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It wasn’t until 1821, that the French physician de Gardanne invented the term menopause to describe this transition phase in women’s lives which soon became regarded as a disease for which there must be a cure.

By the 1960s oestrogen replacement therapy was being taken by about 12 per cent of all postmenopausal women. The uptake of HRT followed years of promoting menopause as an oestrogen deficiency disease which must be cured or women would end up as shriveled and osteoporotic creatures to be pitied by all. Never mind the fact that modern women have mothers and grandmothers who scarcely noticed the now maligned life transition instead, celebrating this stage of life as one where they were liberated from the concerns of pregnancy and childbearing.

Such freedoms-to-be, were challenged by the likes of Dr Robert Wilson with his book Feminine Forever where he promoted the ground-breaking idea that menopause was this oestrogen-deficiency disease. The propaganda to educate women and their doctors about menopausal symptoms and the dangers of oestrogen loss was ardently pursued by the drug company Ayerst, the makers of Premarin which became the number one dispensed drug in America.

It soon became apparent that there were problems associated with the administration of oestrogen and by 1972 the news that endometrial cancer was rising in the women taking oestrogen for menopausal symptoms prompted a moratorium on the drug.

Not daunted by such serious side effects of their “wonder drug”, the pharmaceutical companies came up with new studies showing that the risk of endometrial cancer could be lowered by adding progesterone to ERT and by the 1990’s there were also claims that oestrogen had some benefit in reducing Alzheimer’s disease, age-related eye disease, colon cancer, tooth loss, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. Such claims only proving the utter desperation of the pharmaceutical companies as they continued to peddle the false rhetoric to post menopausal women.

In spite of the previous claims, studies in 1997 indicated an increased risk of breast cancer with postmenopausal oestrogen use; and again, in 1998, The Heart Estrogen/Progestin Replacement Study (HERS) found no heart benefit to women who took HRT and had cardiovascular disease. Eventually it was in 2002 that the oestrogen/progestin portion of the WHI study originally scheduled to end in 2005 was halted because of an increased incidence of invasive breast cancer and an increased risk of venous thromboembolism and adverse cardiovascular events.

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The reaction to this news was outrage and shock from the women who numbered six million in the USA. Following this alarming announcement to halt the study because of the increased risks to women’s health, millions of those taking HRT stopped the medication and many are seeking to learn about other alternatives to ease their symptoms of menopause.

But if our grandmothers did not have such difficulty in facing this stage of life why do we modern women? The answer may be as simple as the effects of many environmental triggers such as pollution, different types and qualities of foods and other lifestyle factors. To simply swallow a pill for a disease founded and promoted on the belief that women remain feminine forever has been shown to be dangerous to women’s health but as usual to make vast profits for pharmaceutical companies and others.

The good news is that the Australian federal government is being pressured to consider a ban on the drug with the cancer council of New South Wales CEO Dr Andrew Penman calling for a re-evaluation of the use of HRT to treat menopausal symptoms which when taken for over five years increases the risks by 60 per cent.

We must continue the pressure on the Australian federal government to ban the use of HRT as its use has been found to be a tragic mistake.

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About the Author

Helen Lobato is an independent health researcher and radio broadcaster with community radio 3cr and at present is a co-producer of Food fight, a weekly program around food security issues. Helen has a background in critical care nursing.

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