Expert Commentary

Is hormone therapy still a valid option? 12 ObGyns address this question

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Clinicians understand the risks and benefits of hormone therapy for menopausal women more precisely than ever—but has the pendulum swung too far in the direction of risk?




When the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) published follow-up data on the association between estrogen-progestin hormone therapy (HT) and breast cancer last fall, it seemed, for a time, like another death knell had sounded for hormonal management of menopausal symptoms.1 The data showed that breast cancers in women who have used oral estrogen-progestin therapy are more likely to be node-positive and carry a higher death rate than breast cancers in nonusers.

Since then, a new WHI analysis from the estrogen-alone arm has found a protective effect against breast cancer among hysterectomized users of unopposed conjugated equine estrogens (CEE).2

So what are clinicians to make of all the data? And how should you counsel your menopausal patients who report bothersome vasomotor symptoms? We put these questions to members of the OBG Management Virtual Board of Editors, and they responded with a not-so-surprising diversity of opinion. Presented here are excerpts of their reflections on the role of HT in clinical practice today.

For a closer look at data from the WHI and other studies, see the Update on Menopause, by Andrew M. Kaunitz, MD, on the facing page.

Hormone therapy is alive and kicking

Susan J. Spencer, MD
San Mateo, Calif

To borrow from Mark Twain: Rumors of the death of HT have been greatly exaggerated. With every new spinoff report from the WHI, the tide of panic rises again.

In my private practice in gynecology, I see many patients who seek my care because another physician (usually another gynecologist) has declined to prescribe HT. Sometimes the HT is refused because the patient has reached 5 years of therapy, and the doctor is simply not comfortable continuing.

What is the guiding principle here? Beneficence? Paternalism (or maternalism)? Risk-aversion? All pharmaceutical therapies have risks. Penicillin can cause anaphylaxis; should we advise patients to avoid antibiotics?

When I counsel women about treatment of vasomotor symptoms, I review herbal and botanical remedies and neurotransmitter modulators as well as estrogen and progestin HT options. I believe that these are all valid options, and I take time to give the patient realistic expectations of efficacy and risks for each one, so that she can make a well-informed decision. But which is the most effective for relief of vasomotor symptoms?

Yes, it’s still HT.

In 2011, we have reached an age of enlightenment with regard to HT. We are using lower dosages of estrogen than ever to address menopausal symptoms. We are preferentially prescribing non-oral HT to reduce thromboembolic complications. To prevent endometrial hyperplasia, we are looking to native (dare I say “bioidentical”?) progesterone, as it appears that different progestins carry different levels of breast cancer risk.3

An enlightened approach means addressing the patient’s symptoms while minimizing the risk of adverse effects. Let’s not regress back to the age of panic.

Dr. Spencer reports no relevant financial relationships.

Patients lack information

Judith Volkar, MD
Cleveland, Ohio

As a staff physician in Specialized Women’s Health at the Cleveland Clinic, I manage menopausal women on a regular basis. I find that many of these patients—and their physicians—are poorly informed about the actual risks and benefits of HT. They are unaware of the difference between a prevention trial and a risk trial. And they grossly overestimate the risk of an adverse effect. For example, women who used combination estrogen-progestin in the WHI experienced an increase of 8 cases of breast cancer for every 10,000 woman-years of use. In contrast, women who do not exercise regularly suffer an increase of 35 cases of breast cancer for every 10,000 woman-years of use. In short, the use of HT in the average woman poses far less risk of breast cancer than a poor lifestyle does.

Furthermore, women are not aware that we have a great deal of evidence that early initiation of HT minimizes cardiovascular risk. They are unaware that this early initiation of therapy may well confer a decrease in overall mortality as high as 30%. Patients do not realize that the WHI studied only oral HT and that the use of lower-dose transdermal estrogen most likely minimizes the risks of blood clots, stroke, and hypertension.

I believe that we have allowed the sensationalized coverage of the WHI to cloud the actual data showing that the risks of HT are small. There appears to be some gender bias involved. We allow men to have a drug marketed to them that carries a risk of blindness, heart attack, hypertension, and 4-hour erections—we simply conclude that the benefit is worth the risk. Why don’t we look at HT in the same risk-benefit light? Perhaps it’s because we do not believe that treating a woman’s disabling vasomotor symptoms; her silent, progressive bone loss; or her painful vaginal dryness is worthy of our medical attention.


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