Breast Cancer Diagnoses Down, but Only in White Women

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A study found that between 2000 and 2004, the rate of breast cancer diagnoses in white women between the ages of 50 and 70 went down, but this lower rate of diagnosis didn't happen in other ethnic groups. The rate of breast cancer diagnoses in African American women actually increased during the same time period.

Many doctors believe that a drop in the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) explains the drop in the rate of breast cancer diagnoses among white women. HRT is used to ease menopausal symptoms. HRT use decreased dramatically when research showed a link between HRT use and breast cancer.

Other research suggested that African American women didn't have the same drop in breast cancer rates as white women because breast cancer in African American women is biologically different than breast cancer in white women. This could mean that cancers in African American women are more aggressive and may be less affected by HRT.

This study addresses another possible reason why breast cancer rates in African American women didn't drop like they did in white women. The researchers found that though African American women were less likely to use HRT than white women, the African American women who did use HRT were more likely to keep using HRT even after HRT was linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. White women were more likely to stop using HRT once the link to breast cancer was reported.

It's likely that cancer biology differences AND HRT use differences are the reasons for the racial differences in the rates of breast cancer diagnoses in recent years. What's not clear is why African American women are more likely to keep using HRT. It might be that African American women are less likely to be told about the risks associated with using HRT. Other research has shown that African American women tend to get less optimal care compared to white women. Lack of information is just one way care can be less optimal.

Whatever your race, menopausal symptoms can reduce your quality of life. If you're having severe menopausal symptoms, you and your doctor have to weigh the benefits of HRT against the risks. If you're considering taking HRT, talk to your doctor about your options. Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of different types of HRT. Estrogen-only HRT appears to cause a lower increase breast cancer risk than combination HRT (which contains both estrogen and progesterone). Together, you and your doctor can decide if HRT or another treatment for menopause might be right for you.

If you do decide to take HRT, try to use it for the shortest time possible. One study found that breast cancer risk didn't go up when women took combination HRT for fewer than 3 years. While you're taking HRT, you also can take other steps:

  • eating a healthy that's low in fat and full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising every day

that can lower your breast cancer risk. Regular breast self-exams, annual exams by your doctor, and routine mammograms also are very important during and after HRT to detect breast cancer early, when it's most treatable.

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