Study Narrows Estrogen's Breast-Cancer Link

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Should postmenopausal women take estrogen to protect against heart disease and osteoporosis in the face of fears that such therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer? That question, one of the toughest medical issues confronting women, may have got easier to answer, if only a little, as a result of new research published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association. A study of 37,105 women found little evidence linking estrogen replacement with the most common types of breast cancers, though it did find that the treatment did increase the risk of getting some less common but more treatable forms.

"This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that on balance undergoing hormone replacement is better than not," says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman. "The therapy is such a huge benefit in terms of decreasing the much greater risk of heart disease that it swamps the slightly increased risk of breast cancer." But Gorman adds a very important caveat: This risk-benefit analysis is true only on a broad population level -- it does not necessarily provide guidance to individuals. Women considering the treatment need to evaluate their medical histories and those of their relatives in order to determine whether they may face a higher predisposition to breast cancer. There are computer research models that can help make such assessments, says Gorman, but in the end it all boils down to an individual decision that should be made only after consultation with a doctor.